FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- In sharp contrast to bitter partisan battles being waged elsewhere over election laws, Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky moved closer Tuesday toward loosening the state's voting access laws to make limited early voting a fixture.
A measure overwhelmingly approved Tuesday in the state Senate would give Kentucky voters three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting — including a Saturday — before Election Day. But it backed off from the temporary, pandemic-related accommodations made last year that allowed widespread mail-in absentee balloting.
The bill also seeks to strengthen election security protections.
The legislation passed the Senate by a 33-3 margin, sending it back to the House to consider changes made to it. Republicans dominate both chambers, but Senate Democrats joined in voting for the bill. However, the measure didn't come up for a potential final vote before the House adjourned shortly before midnight. That means supporters will have to wait until lawmakers reconvene for a two-day wrap-up session in late March to take up the measure. If it clears the legislature, it would be sent to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
"If it passes and becomes law, not only will it transform the way in which Kentucky elects its public officials, but also ensure that we have one of the best voter integrity laws in the country," Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said.
Kentucky is accustomed to bare-knuckled partisan fights, but its top elections official noted the mild tone in the state, especially compared to the bitter debates on election law changes in other states. It echoed the tone set before last year's primaries, when Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams hashed out emergency voting measures during the pandemic that helped Kentucky largely avoid the long lines and other problems encountered elsewhere.
Adams noted this week that while other states are "trying to make it harder to vote," Kentucky lawmakers are "improving both voter access and election integrity." He has called it Kentucky's "most significant election-reform legislation" in nearly three decades.
Across the country, Republicans have introduced a flood of legislation to restrict voting access after President Joe Biden beat former President Donald Trump in November. Many of the proposals target absentee voting after Trump repeatedly made false claims about fraud in mail voting.
The Kentucky legislation, by contrast, would relax pre-pandemic voting law to make it easier to vote. It would allow counties to establish vote centers, where any voter in the county could vote regardless of precinct. It would maintain an online portal for Kentuckians to request a mail-in ballot but keep existing restrictions on who can vote by mail.
On the election security side, the bill would result in the statewide transition toward universal paper ballots to guarantee a paper audit trail. It enhances the ability of state election officials to remove nonresident voters from voter rolls. It expressly prohibits and penalizes ballot harvesting, the practice of collecting ballots from likely supporters and returning them to election offices.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Kentucky prohibited early voting by mail or in person unless a person could not vote on Election Day because of advanced age, illness, severe disability or temporarily residing out of the county or state.
The special pandemic-related election rules Beshear and Adams worked out last year included multiple weeks of early in-person voting, including Saturdays, to prevent a crush of Election Day voting.
Republican lawmakers backed away from continuing weeks of early in-person voting for future elections, but they accepted the three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey, the chamber's top-ranking Democrat, said the bill's expanded voting options didn't go as far as he wanted but saw it as a start.
"I'd like to see even more voting options included in this bill," McGarvey said during the Senate debate. "But I do think it's important for us to codify some of these changes now and they do give the voters more options, and we can continue to work on it."