Kentucky is latest battleground for secretaries of state facing election falsehoods during primaries
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s secretary of state has won bipartisan praise during his first term in office for expanding voter access during the COVID-19 pandemic and overseeing elections that have been free of widespread problems.
That record still hasn’t paved a clear path to reelection for Republican Michael Adams. He now must persuade primary voters who have been bombarded for years with false claims about rigged elections.
He faces one challenger in Tuesday’s GOP primary who has promoted debunked election claims and another who favors pulling Kentucky out of a multistate effort designed to detect voter fraud, an effort being pushed by conspiracy theorists in conservative states.
The battle for Kentucky's top elections post follows similar campaigns during last year's midterm elections, when candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election won GOP primaries in numerous states. A handful of them went on to win the office in deeply Republican states, but each of those candidates lost in the closely contested swing states that typically decide presidential elections.
Adams, a lawyer, soundly defeated Steve Knipper in the primary four years ago. Knipper, who has questioned the result of the 2020 presidential election, is back for another run along with another Republican, Allen Maricle, a former state representative and television station executive. The winner will face Democrat Buddy Wheatley, a former state representative who recently lost reelection. He is unopposed in his primary.
Adams earned praise from both parties for increasing voting opportunities and allowing mail-in ballots in the 2020 elections during the pandemic. He has raised significantly more campaign cash than his two opponents. But he said the political landscape has shifted dramatically for secretary of state races around the country, namely because of a wave of conspiracy theories and false allegations after the 2020 presidential race.
“This job has gotten a lot more high-profile than it used to be,” Adams said. “And I think the big question in this election is, which direction are we going to go in?"
Adams, 47, has had harsh words for election skeptics, calling them “cranks and kooks” who shouldn't be in charge of Kentucky's election process.
State and local election officials continue to grapple with the fallout from former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The lies he continues to tell, including during a televised town hall, earlier this week, not only undermine confidence in elections, particularly among Republicans, but have led to harassment and death threats against election officials and their staff.
Reviews in multiple states, including ones controlled by Republicans, have shown there was no widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. Dozens of judges, including several nominated by Trump, also rejected his claims.
Knipper, 52, won the GOP nomination for secretary of state in 2015 before losing to Democratic incumbent Alison Grimes in the general election. The former city council member from a small town across the Ohio River from Cincinnati was a staffer under former Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, but was fired by former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Knipper and a former colleague of his in the lieutenant governor's office who also was swept out by Bevin, Adrienne Southworth, have been touring the state together alleging — without evidence — election fraud in the 2019 governor’s race won by Democrat Andy Beshear and in the 2020 presidential election.
Knipper said he has raised more money and enjoyed more support from the public than during his previous two races, and is running television ads for the first time.
“I’ve had enthusiasm, but I have never had this much enthusiasm behind me," he said.
Maricle has campaigned on his experience in the Kentucky Legislature, saying he is the only candidate who has a voting record on election legislation. That includes support for a bill in the 1990s that allowed voters who were in line at the time of poll closings to remain in line and finish voting.
Maricle, 60, is critical of Knipper's election skepticism, saying Knipper has provided no evidence.
“He’s said these elections have been stolen through the machines — prove it,” Maricle said.
But Maricle also has campaigned on moving the state out of a multistate system intended to combat voter fraud. He said he is taking a cue from other Republican secretaries of state critical of it and said it is not doing a good enough job helping states clear their voter rolls.
"It’s flawed,” he said. “You have nine Republican states in the last 90 days do away with that system.”
Knipper has also sought to capitalize on the issue, which has divided Republican state election officials. In a March release, he urged supporters to call on Adams to withdraw Kentucky from the bipartisan effort, which has found itself in the crosshairs of conspiracy theories fueled by Trump’s false claims.
In the release, Knipper repeated claims that the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voluntary system known as ERIC, was funded by George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist who has long been the subject of conspiracy theories. While ERIC received initial funding from the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, that money was separate from the money provided to Pew by a Soros-affiliated organization that went to an unrelated effort, according to ERIC’s executive director, Shane Hamlin.
Knipper's stance on the ERIC system won him the vote of Dae Combs, a 63-year-old Louisville resident who visited an early voting location on Thursday.
“I’m just concerned that it would be easily manipulated,” Combs said. “I’m not saying that’s what happened, but I just think there needs to be more investigation into it.”
Combs said she doesn't question the results of the 2020 election despite her support of Knipper.
Biden "is our president and we kind of go with the system. This is our system, it’s the best system in the world, but I do think there is room to look at things and not just take things at face value.”
Louisiana has left a group of states using the ERIC system after a series of online posts early last year questioning its funding and purpose. Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia subsequently provided notice that they, too, would leave. Texas has said it's working on an alternative effort and is unlikely to stay. Kentucky is among six Republican-led states that have so far remained.
Judy Davenport, who was voting in Louisville on her 62nd birthday, said her vote for Adams was influenced by Knipper’s election skepticsm.
“I’m not an election denier,” she said.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta.
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