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Election deniers seek to oust Kentucky Republican who expanded voting access

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams' primary has become a referendum on voter fraud and the 2020 election.
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Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state, Michael Adams, vows that he won’t play ball with election deniers.

He doesn’t want to remove the state from ERIC, an interstate database of voter information that has been targeted by conspiracy theorists. And he believes hand-counting ballots, as one opponent has suggested, “would be a disaster.”

He might lose his job for saying all this, but he’s OK with that, too.

Adams, a first-term incumbent, will face two challengers in Tuesday’s Republican primary for secretary of state. Stephen Knipper, an information technology project manager who ran for secretary of state in 2019, and Allen Maricle, a former state legislator, have both campaigned on voter fraud claims.

“The other lesson I’ve learned from what happened to my colleagues in other states — Republicans who are incumbents in this office — is if you feed the tiger, it still eats you. If you cave and get into these conspiracy theories, all it does is validate them,” he said. “You don’t get any respect or love for what you did, if you cave, they still eat you alive. … I’m not going to fall for that.”

Adams said he “empathizes” with Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, who said last month he would not run for re-election this year due to “pervasive lies” about elections.

“He’s a conservative Republican. He’s run clean elections in this state. And he’s actually gone quite a bit further, I guess, to the right than I have: He pulled out of ERIC and things like that, and it wasn’t enough,” he said. “He still had to drop out, because the environment is so ugly right now.”

Adams took office in 2020. Soon after, the coronavirus made congregating at the polls dangerous, and Adams teamed up with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, to expand voting access through joint emergency powers. They expanded mail voting and opened countywide polling supercenters in large venues. Turnout surged, and Kentucky was hailed as a model for pandemic primaries.

The next year, as Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country made headlines for enacting strict voting restrictions and sharply curtailing mail voting, Kentucky lawmakers — led by Adams — bucked the trend. With bipartisan support, the state enacted legislation that added three days of early voting, made supercenters a permanent option for counties, and created an online portal for registering to vote and requesting ballots, while adding new restrictions — like banning ballot collection — in the name of election integrity.

The state previously had some of the strictest voting laws on the books — and still does despite the modest expansion in 2021 — but the legislation was a remarkable outlier in a year dominated by hyperpartisan election legislation. It also helped put the Republican secretary in the crosshairs of election deniers.

Knipper, who did not respond to an emailed request for an interview, was running a “Restore Election Integrity” tour around the state in 2021, claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that he personally saw hackers manipulate U.S. election results online, according to The State Journal. He's criticized the supercenters and early voting codified in the 2021 law and fought against the use of electronic voting machines.

Maricle, who has raised significantly less money than Knipper, hasn't gone as far in his rhetoric (he has called Knipper a “nut job”) but has still argued that there is significant fraud in Kentucky elections, particularly in mail voting. He did not respond to an interview request sent through his website.

Both challengers have said Kentucky should leave ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center. The interstate database has recently come under fire from right-wing activists across the country, who have falsely claimed that ERIC is funded by liberal billionaire George Soros and fostering voter fraud.

In fact, the system allows states to alert each other when voters move and register to vote elsewhere, helping member states clean up their voter rolls.

Member states fund and manage ERIC; they received start-up money and a 2019 one-time grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Soros-affiliated groups have funded other programs within Pew, according to Shane Hamlin, executive director of ERIC.

Virginia recently became the eighth state to depart the coalition.

Maricle says it's “risky” on his website, while Knipper has said “our voter rolls are controlled by a George Soros system.”

Adams said ERIC is a helpful tool in election administration.

"It's unfortunate that it's been demagogued, but we're just going to ignore all the nonsense and stay in the partnership. I might lose my job because of it, but there's no other way for me to fulfill my legal oath to get these rolls cleaned up," he said.

Adams said he'll be fine with either outcome in Tuesday's primary.

"On a personal level, I won't be that disappointed — I kind of miss the private life. This has been a really, really hard job. When I ran, I didn't think I was gonna get death threats. I thought I was gonna push a bunch of paper around," he said.

Still, he's optimistic he'll get another four years: "I can accept the outcome either way, but I'm really hopeful that we'll pull this out. I do think I'm gonna win."