In a rebuke against one of the state’s top Democrats, the Kentucky Senate voted Tuesday to limit Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’s influence over the State Board of Elections.
The Republican-dominated Senate passed the bill on a 27-8 vote, sending the proposal to the GOPled House. The legislation, which would take effect immediately if it becomes law, would apply to Grimes and future secretaries of state.
The bill stems from accusations that Grimes overreached her authority as the state’s elections chief and wielded excessive power over the elections board. The allegations have spurred multiple investigations, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said Tuesday.
“The very integrity of the office of secretary of state has been brought into question,” said Thayer, the bill’s lead sponsor. “And this legislative body needs to send a strong message to the voters of this commonwealth … with this vote that the integrity of the voter registration rolls in this commonwealth shall not be compromised, no matter who is the elected secretary of state.”
Grimes denounced the Senate vote, saying the bill would “disrupt” statewide elections later this year when voters will choose a new governor and fill other constitutional offices.
She also accused the chamber’s GOP majority of trying to “polarize the fair and impartial administration of elections” by stripping her office of its ability to carry out its duties. She said her office has “at all times” carried out its duties in compliance with the law.
“I will carefully review any legislation enacted and take all legal actions necessary to preserve the integrity of Kentucky’s elections,” Grimes said in a statement.
During the Senate debate, Thayer cited an investigation published by the Lexington Herald-Leader and ProPublica. The publications found that Grimes pushed through a no-bid contract with a political donor’s company, had staff search the state’s voter registration system for information about hundreds of state workers and political rivals, and allegedly retaliated against elections board staff when they complained about her actions.
Grimes has denied any wrongdoing and said the allegations were politically motivated. She contends state and federal law give her the right to access the voter registration system and directly oversee elections board staff.
The measure would eliminate the secretary of state’s access to the state voter registration rolls and would remove the secretary of state as chairperson of the State Board of Elections.
The board’s duties include maintaining the statewide voter registration database and ensuring Kentucky’s compliance with state and federal election laws.
Grimes, in her second term as secretary of state, cannot seek re-election this year because of term limits. She considered running for governor this year but decided against it. Grimes lost a high-profile U.S. Senate race against Republican Mitch McConnell in 2014.
The bill also would add two members to the elections board, which now has six regular members and Grimes, who can break ties. The new members would be two county clerks — one Republican and one Democrat. They would join the existing three Democrats and three Republicans appointed to the board by the governor.
Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas of Lexington warned the bill would put the state’s 2019 and 2020 elections “into chaos” by stripping the secretary of state’s access to voter registration files.
During the debate, Thomas cited a federal law that he said requires every state elections chief have access to national voter registration files. Each official must have security clearance, which Grimes has, he said. The bill would put Kentucky in conflict with the federal law, Thomas said.
The legislation is Senate Bill 34.