Legislators spar over homeless voter registration and independents voting in primaries

07/26/2011 06:21 PM

FRANKFORT — House Democrats and House and Senate Republicans tussled over two voting issues during a summer meeting of a combined committee working on election bills in preparation for the 2012 session.

Co-chaired by Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer and Democratic State Rep. Darryl Owens, the committee debated whether to allow registered independent voters to vote in Democratic or Republican primaries.

And the committee heard testimony on a state board of election memo regarding voter registration of the homeless.

That has become a major campaign focus of Bill Johnson, the Republican candidate for secretary of state. He has alleged that the memo violates state law because it doesn’t require an address to register a homeless citizen to vote. Johnson has even filed a executive branch ethics complaint against current Secretary of State Elaine Walker for agreeing with the memo.

Walker sought to clarify the memo’s intent. The ruling made by the board has two parts. First, if someone fails to list an address or puts down an incomplete address, the registration is considered incomplete and is not active until the address is fixed. However, if a citizen indicates he or she is homeless or travel from place-to-place, the elections board can assign that person to a precinct closest to where they stay or at the county clerk’s office.

The controversy over the memo started with Boone County Clerk Kenny Brown, who said he disagrees with Walker and the board’s advice.

Brown told the committee he spoke with his county attorney, who agreed with him. And Brown said he was worried about fraud in his county.

The heart of the issue is whether or not the ruling would allow for fraud, something Walker and House Democrats on the committee disputed.

Walker said that few homeless citizens are registered in each county and that an even smaller amount of homeless voters even cast a ballot on Election Day.

That led Owens and some other House Democrats to dismiss the issue. They said they didn’t believe there was a problem.

State Rep. Derrick Graham, a Frankfort Democrat, said opposing the ruling in the memo amounted to preventing citizens from voting.

But Thayer said he wanted to make sure the board’s ruling on the issue didn’t create a loophole for future fraud.

The committee also heard testimony on a bill to allow semi-open primary elections to independent voters, a bill that has passed the Senate twice. Last session, the bill came up one vote short in a House committee and died.

Michael Lewis, chairman of Independent Kentucky, pointed to low turnout figures in the 2011 primary as proof that Kentucky’s primaries should be more open.

He made his pitch mostly to House Democrats, who spoke openly about their opposition to the idea of allowing independents to participate in primaries.

But Lewis got in hot water with the committee when he compared independent voters to African American and women voters, who fought for years to gain voting rights.

Graham disputed the analogy. Independents already have their voices heard in general elections, he said.

And the comparison might have hurt the bill’s chances even with some who had supported it. Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union who backed the bill, said the analogy made him wary of supporting the bill.

-Reporting by Kenny Colston

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