Voters in Kentucky were on track to cast ballots in record numbers for Tuesday’s primary despite the risk of coronavirus infection and shortages of poll workers, thanks in part to the widespread embrace of voting by mail.
Michael Adams, Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state, projected that total turnout would exceed 1 million, including roughly 800,000 mailed ballots. The final figure would shatter the previous record of 922,456 primary voters set in 2008.
Poll worker cancellations had forced election officials to staff fewer than 200 polling locations instead of the usual 3,700, but Adams said an avalanche of mail-in balloting and in-person early voting helped lessen demand on the polls Tuesday.
The numbers reflected an overwhelming shift to absentee voting by Kentucky voters, even as President Donald Trump has railed against mail ballots and claimed without evidence they lead to massive fraud.
As of midafternoon, about 570,000 absentee ballots had been received by election offices in the state, in addition to the 100,000 ballots cast at early voting locations. At least 156,000 people voted in person on Election Day.
Primaries were also held Tuesday in Virginia, as well as New York, where there were scattered reports of delays in opening polling sites, voters receiving incomplete ballot packages and long lines that stretched into the night.
In Kentucky, officials had been anticipating a high turnout in part because of a late surge by Senate candidate Charles Booker, a first-term state lawmaker who is challenging former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath for the Democratic nomination to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in November.
By the time polls closed in most of the state at 6 p.m. Eastern time, hundreds were still waiting in line to cast their ballots in Lexington, and were allowed to continue filing into a polling site at the University of Kentucky football field.
In Louisville, dozens of voters outside the Kentucky Exposition Center, the city’s sole voting location, were temporarily locked out when the polls closed at 6 p.m. Videos circulated on social media of people gathered outside the doors, knocking and asking to be let in.
Nore Ghibaudy, a spokesman for Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, said that everyone who was present and wanted to vote at 6 p.m. had been ushered into line before the doors were secured.
Both the Booker and McGrath campaigns filed petitions with the court seeking an extension of voting hours. Shortly after the doors were locked, a judge issued an injunction ordering election officials to keep the site open until 6:30 p.m., triggering a rush of people into the building.
Earlier this year, Adams joined with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, to prepare for the primary, backing a bipartisan agreement to relax the rules of who could vote absentee because of the pandemic. Voters were allowed to cite the “medical emergency” excuse if they were worried about the health risk of voting in person, a move that drove a huge increase in mail ballots.
On Tuesday, county officials opened a single voting location in both Louisville and Lexington — but did so in cavernous facilities with the capacity to process dozens of voters at a time. The two cities have a combined total of about 860,000 registered voters.
For most of the day, voting progressed smoothly at the Exposition Center in Louisville, while Lexington saw moderately long lines at Kroger Field.
Willie Richard, 59, said voting in Louisville was “a breeze, better than ever” — and actually quicker than his usual precinct.
Despite waits of up to 90 minutes in the blazing late-afternoon sun in Lexington, the atmosphere was largely convivial, with voters snapping photos and sharing pizza and water in line.
The delay was of no consequence to Teresa Clayborne, a local entrepreneur who said she was inspired by recent protests — and by her ancestors — to stand in the line for as long as it took.
“They died for this opportunity,” said Clayborne, who is African American. “And I’m going to take this opportunity. I don’t care how long it takes.”
After check-in lines grew in Lexington, the state elections board held an emergency meeting, where the state’s top elections official reported that additional check-in stations had been added and the lines had begun to ease.
“We got a little bit more voters than we expected, so the facility is running at about its maximum capacity,” said Don Blevins Jr., the Fayette County clerk.
Ghibaudy said Jefferson County made vastly different preparations than usual to address the pandemic. Workers set up more than 350 voting stalls, with more in the wings if needed. And they directed voters into 18 separate lines representing different precincts, each able to accommodate up to 30 socially distanced voters, he said.
Ghibaudy said the challenges in Georgia and other states that have recently held primaries provided a road map for what to do better on Election Day, although he said processing a wave of mail ballots added its own challenges.
“Last spring, we had 1,200 people request a ballot by mail,” he said. “Compared to 218,000 (this year). That’s a lot. ... Of course, we only found out this is what we’d be doing five weeks ago.”
Kristen Clarke, who leads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a voting rights advocacy group, commended state and county officials for working across the aisle to find solutions for voters ahead of the primaries.
“Jefferson County officials certainly did a good job finding a site in the county that recognizes that there is a pandemic,” she said Tuesday during a media briefing. “This is a big space that allows for election officials to comply with social distancing requirements, allows for space between voters, and is ideal in that respect.”
But she said voters should have more than one in-person voting option on Election Day, noting the challenges people faced trying to cast their ballots in recent primaries in Georgia and Wisconsin.