AP NEWS

Ky gov signs bill limiting Grimes’ power over election board

March 19, 2019
FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018 file photo, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks during the 26th Annual Wendell Ford Dinner in Louisville, Ky. Legislation removing the secretary of state's power over the state Board of Elections has been signed into law by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin — on the same day the board met. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes did not attend the meeting at the state Capitol. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Legislation removing the secretary of state’s power over the State Board of Elections was signed into law on Tuesday by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin — on the same day the board met.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes did not attend the meeting at the state Capitol. The seat at the center of the table where Grimes customarily sat was empty.

But Grimes, one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, indicated later that she might have plenty more to say — perhaps in court — about the new law enacted by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature and signed by the GOP governor.

“Right now I’m considering all legal options that are available,” she said in an interview.

Grimes condemned the law as an improper “interference by one branch of government into another constitutional officer’s work.”

The measure carried an emergency clause allowing it to take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature. It removes the secretary of state as chairman and a voting member of the elections board. The secretary of state becomes a nonvoting member. The board’s executive director would have voting authority only to break a tie to determine the board’s chairman.

The law also limits access by the secretary of state’s office to a database of registered voters. It makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to misuse the state’s voter registration system.

The secretary of state and two designees will be given access to the database under the law, but they could not make changes to it without approval from the elections board.

The measure came after two employees at the State Board of Elections accused Grimes of wielding excessive power over the board and using her access to the voter database for political purposes. Grimes denies the allegations, saying her office followed the law “at all times.” Grimes is under investigation by three state agencies.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican, pointed to the accusations in leading the push for the changes.

“We need to send a message to the voters that one partisan political figure cannot have ... unfettered access to our voter database,” Thayer said during the Senate debate on the measure.

Thayer successfully added the language to an existing House bill when his own measure to limit Grimes’ authority had stalled. Several House members harshly criticized the process that brought the bill to the House floor for a vote last week.

The new law also expands the elections board’s membership from six voting members to eight, including two former county clerks.

Grimes said it expands the governor’s influence over the elections board with his power to appoint the members, while diminishing the secretary of state’s power.

“This bill has effectively eliminated the checks and balances envisioned constitutionally by the chief election official in watching over our elections,” she said.

The voting members would consist of four Republicans and four Democrats, and Grimes said tie votes could result in “gridlock.”

While Grimes skipped the elections board meeting, her staff provided board members with vote totals to certify a special election to fill a state Senate seat in eastern Kentucky.

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.

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The legislation was House Bill 114.