WASHINGTON – NBA star Lebron James slammed Kentucky's plan to cut voting sites from 3,700 to 200 "systemic racism and oppression." Stacey Abrams called it "voter suppression." So did Hillary Clinton, declaring it's time to restore the Voting Rights Act.
But the dire forecasts ahead of Kentucky's state primary Tuesday – warnings of severely long lines and disaster certain to come – didn't materialize.
In fact, some critics quickly changed their tune after recognizing that Kentucky sacrificed in-person voting sites for a robust vote-by-mail program that allowed anyone to vote absentee from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In a sharp reversal from her message the day before, Clinton tweeted "kudos" Tuesday night to Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear for making it "easy for every (Kentuckian) to vote" through no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting.
An estimated 1.1 million Kentuckians voted in the primary – a record for a Kentucky primary – including 75% through mail-in ballots in a state where typically only 2% vote absentee.
More:Record voting, a long wait & antsy incumbents: Takeaways from Kentucky's primary election
Kentucky is now getting widely lauded for its election performance. Still, vote-by-mail advocates aren't ready to crown the Bluegrass State the perfect model for voting in a pandemic during the November general election.
Along with primaries Tuesday in New York and Virginia, advocates pointed to new lessons on voter access amid the pandemic, including one of the biggest challenges: finding a balance between expanded mail-voting while preserving in-person voting.
Although neither Kentucky nor New York produced in-person voting lines as long as past primaries in Georgia and Wisconsin, Tuesday wasn't without flaws.
In Jefferson County, home to Kentucky's largest city, Louisville, election officials closed the doors shortly after 6 p.m. as many voters were still parking or running from their cars to the Kentucky Expo Center, the county's only voting site. A judge granted an injunction to keep the polls open until 6:30 p.m.
Voters in Lafayette County, home of Lexington, Kentucky, waited as long as two hours earlier in the day.
Problems were more widespread in New York. Many voters said they did not receive absentee ballots they requested in time for them to return them. Some in-person voting sites opened late because a stretch of the subway shut down, making it hard to poll workers to have sites ready. Other voters said they received only one page of a two-page ballot.
"Much work remains to be done for states to get this right for the general election, which will be a time when officials will be contending with much higher voter turnout level," said Kristin Clarke, president & executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
"I would put Milwaukee and Georgia higher on the Richter scale in terms of the degree and magnitude of problems that voters experienced. But voters are encountering problems across the board and we have to address those issues in advance of the general election."
'Two simultaneous elections'
Both Kentucky and New York are still counting absentee votes and not expected to release officials results until next week. That includes the high-profile Democratic Senate primary between Charles Booker and Amy McGrath. The winner will take on Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Voting rights experts commended Kentucky's embrace of vote-by-mail but said the state reduced in-person voting sites too dramatically. Kentucky gave counties the ability to have as few as one voting site, which advocates said put residents who lived far away, the disabled and individuals without cars at a disadvantage.
In New York, a record 1.75 million voters requested absentee ballots – 11 times what is typically requested. Around 869,000 people voted in person Tuesday.
Four percent historically vote by mail in New York. If all mail ballots are returned, it would make up nearly 67% of the overall vote, according to New York Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin. He called it an "astronomical amount" for New York.
But with some New York voters unable to receive their ballots in time, advocates said it shows why states must begin dramatically increase capacity for a surge of mail-in ballots far in advance.
"Between massive absentee ballot confusion in New York and a dramatic consolidation of voting locations in Kentucky, primary elections today illustrated that additional steps must be taken between now and our November general elections," former Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and former Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said in a joint statement.
Ridge and Granholm co-chair VoteSafe, a newly formed organization that is pushing for expanded vote-by-mail options ahead of the November election as President Donald Trump opposes such efforts.
"Once again" voters demonstrated their desire for options amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the group's statement said, but work remains. They called on Congress to approve funding for states to "pandemic-proofing their elections."
"When it comes to preparing our voting systems for November, we must be prepared to execute two simultaneous elections – an in-person option with all of the secure infrastructure and health accommodations that requires, plus a robust and secure absentee ballot process with the support needed to run efficiently."
Kentucky draws praise after scorn
The doomsday narrative for Kentucky's vote ignored a bipartisan deal struck by the state's Democratic governor, Beshear, and Republican secretary of state, Michael Adams, to let the coronavirus be an excuse for anyone to request an absentee ballot.
The same agreement allowed early voting, which was previously prohibited in Kentucky, and enabled counties to consolidate precincts to one voting site to limit workers exposing themselves during the pandemic. For Louisville's 600,000 residents, it was one very large voting site equipped to handle more than typical polling sites like gyms or libraries.
The state Board of Elections said 161,238 Kentuckians voted in person Tuesday and another 110,130 voted in-person early the early voting period. The state said Wednesday it has received more than 604,000 absentee ballots.
"I certainly would hold us up as a model for other states," Adams told USA TODAY, adding that the biggest difference between Kentucky and previous primaries like Wisconsin's is that rules were established clearly two months in advance of the election in a bipartisan way.
"That's why we avoided having another Wisconsin. It's because we didn't have the political brinkmanship going up to the eve of the election, people not knowing what the rules were going to be," he said.
Adams downplayed the rush of voters in Louisville and long lines in Lexington as not unique to a pandemic situation. The lines, he noted, were a third of the length other states have experience. He also took at the critics, calling on Clinton to apologize.
"You had people out of state who were uniformed," Adams said. "You had vacuous celebrities and a has-been like Hillary Clinton attacking us a racist backwater."
Tom Spencer, vice president and elections expert of the Lawyers Democracy Fund, said the election performance in Kentucky went "amazingly well" and the bipartisan cooperation "almost flawlessly."
Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law, agreed that voting in Kentucky appeared to go far smoother than in Georgia. But he said the full picture including whether some people had difficult getting to polling places in Kentucky, might not be known for days or weeks.
"We learned that conducting elections during the COVID pandemic remains a substantial challenge," Norden said, "but that investment in election infrastructure, coordination between state and local authorities and bipartisan cooperation can make a real difference in ensuring that people can vote safely."
As for New York, Joe Burns, former deputy director of election operations of the New York State Board of Elections, said the absentee voting problems stemmed from capacity issues. Until recently, New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the state issue absentee ballots to all registered voters in April. Burns said the timeline gave local election officials little time to send out applications, revive the applications and then mail out and receive ballots.
Conklin, the new New York Board of Elections spokesman, said local election officials worked under trying conditions to oversee elections that were "rescheduled, cancelled and then rescheduled again." He said rules changed mid-course and they were not given additional resources by the state despite the vastly more mail-in ballots.
"All while operating under reduced workforce conditions, watching colleagues get sick and in some cases die," he said, "Whatever mistakes were made, we will learn from them and carry them forward into the next election, but they should be proud of themselves. And we’re not done, yet."
Contributing: Joe Sonka, Louisville Courier-Journal.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.