LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky's new law requiring people to show a government-issued photo ID to vote drew a court challenge Wednesday from groups seeking widespread use of mail-in absentee ballots for the fall election, eager to protect voters fearful of coronavirus spread.
The groups argued in a federal lawsuit that state election laws requiring photo IDs and limiting absentee voting put people at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Kentucky is one of many states where fights over absentee voting have emerged amid debate over how fast to reopen.
The suit asks a judge to suspend the photo ID the measure so Kentuckians lacking such identification don't have to go to government offices to obtain it amid a global health crisis. The Republican-backed measure doesn't apply to next month's primary election but takes effect for the general election in November.
"This new statute, in practice, will increase Kentuckians' risk of exposure to the virus by forcing them to visit ID-issuing offices ... to exercise their right to vote," the lawsuit said.
Gov. Andy Beshear has opened Kentucky's primary election to widespread mail-in absentee voting, relaxing election procedures to try to protect people amid the coronavirus outbreak. The Democratic governor forged the bipartisan agreement in cooperation with the Republican secretary of state.
The groups behind the suit want mail-in absentee voting extended to November.
The suit challenges another part of state election law regarding absentee voting. It claims the narrow allowances for absentee voting will force most Kentuckians to go to polling places in November, jeopardizing their health.
Both laws disproportionately impact minorities, the elderly, disabled and medically frail, it said.
Plaintiffs include several people with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk in the age of the coronavirus, the suit said. Other plaintiffs are the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, the Louisville Urban League and the Kentucky Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union are helping represent the plaintiffs.
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, one of the defendants in the suit, responded by attacking groups behind the suit. In a statement, the Republican elections official said those activists want "to have an unelected federal judge rewrite our election laws for November."
"If these self-described advocates for democracy actually believed in democracy, they would let the democratic process work and let elected officials make policy," Adams said.
Instead, he said, the lawsuit seeks to have lawmaking powers stripped from elected officials accountable to the people — the General Assembly, the secretary of state and even the governor.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the suit offers "sensible solutions" so people can vote safely amid the pandemic.
"Kentuckians should not be forced to choose between their health and their vote," said staff attorney Ceridwen Cherry with the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "Kentucky can and should protect voters by eliminating the photo ID requirement and allowing vote by mail in the November election because ... COVID-19 will remain a risk."
Adams was a leading supporter of the voter photo ID measure. It cleared the Republican-led legislature but was vetoed by Beshear. The legislature overrode the veto.
Currently, Kentucky voters are asked to show identification but it doesn't have to be a photo ID.
Under the new law, voters applying for a mail-in absentee ballot have to include a copy of the voter's photo ID with the ballot application, plaintiffs' lawyers said.
Also under the measure, people lacking their photo ID at the polls could vote by provisional ballot and later produce that ID to enable their ballot to be counted. Or voters could cast their ballots if recognized by an election officer, who would have to sign a document affirming that they know the voter.
The lawsuit comes at a fractious moment in the debate over reopening in Kentucky. Beshear has been praised at times for his handling of the crisis, but over the weekend a small group of protesters, some of them armed, hanged him in effigy near the Kentucky Capitol. Beshear pushed back firmly on Tuesday, vowing not to cave in to their bullying.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, even death.