Voting Rights: Legislating a Lie

by Ben Carter in


Last month, Donald Trump claimed in a tweet that “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Politifact immediately rated this claim a “Pants on Fire” level of lie. Election experts all agree: the amount of voter fraud in American elections is vanishingly low. 

Nevertheless, we must treat these unserious claims from the President-Elect seriously for two reasons. First, though millions more Americans would prefer Hillary Clinton to be President, Donald Trump will be President. So, every foolish, dangerous, and demonstrably false thing he says must be taken seriously. But, second, and more importantly, Donald Trump’s claim of widespread voter fraud is part of the GOP’s larger strategy of actually rigging elections through voter suppression. 

Here’s how it works: you convince voters that voter fraud is a problem (it isn’t) and use that nonexistent “fraud” to pass laws that make it difficult for college students, elderly people, and poor people to register to vote. Combine difficulty registering to vote with a reduction in polling places and restrictions on early voting (Kentucky doesn’t even have no-excuse early voting) and you have a Republican recipe for making sure “their” voters are the most likely to get to the polls. 

So, while voter fraud doesn’t exist, voter suppression certainly does and it’s coming to Kentucky and Washington, DC. Here’s what it will look like: 

  • Repealing the motor voter law (this allows people to register to vote at their motor vehicle departments)
  • Requiring ID in all federal elections
  • Requiring a birth certificate or passport to register to vote
  • Restricting the time and place for people to vote

Again, all of this will happen based on—forgive the easy pun—Trumped-up allegations of nonexistent voter fraud. 

Instead of making it more difficult and expensive to register to vote and more time-consuming and inconvenient to cast a ballot, we can instead insist that our policymakers pass laws making it easier for everyone to participate in our democratic process. Kentucky once led the country in election reform, adopting one of the first computerized voter databases in the nation. We can do it again. Here are three things that our representatives could do this year to expand rather than restrict voting rights in Kentucky: 

First, Kentucky should adopt universal vote-by-mail (UVBM). Three states—Oregon, Colorado, and Washington—already conduct all of their elections by mail-in ballot. For the state, there are a number of benefits. UVBM is safer and more secure than having polling places. It also creates a verifiable paper trail. It’s also less expensive while making it easier for state officials to maintain the voter roll. For voters, it’s more convenient. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that voter turnout increases when you allow people to vote from the comfort of their kitchen tables.

Me, far too excited to vote given that I was forced to show up at a certain place on a certain date as though the USPS doesn't exist and UVBM doesn't work already in three states. Also, my kid. 

Me, far too excited to vote given that I was forced to show up at a certain place on a certain date as though the USPS doesn't exist and UVBM doesn't work already in three states. Also, my kid. 

Second, if we cannot pass UVBM, our legislators can repeal the restrictions on absentee voting to allow everyone to vote within a couple weeks of the election if they want to. 

Finally, Governor Bevin should honor his commitment to the automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons. Kentucky is one of three states that does not automatically restore voting rights to citizens who have served their time. Currently, more than 250,000 Kentuckians cannot vote because of this prohibition. Governor Bevin has claimed to support restoring voting rights, but has actually processed exactly zero citizens’ applications to vote again. 

Unfortunately, voting rights restrictions are likely to be coming to Kentucky. If not from Washington, then from Frankfort. As a community, we should be deeply suspicious of a party’spolicies and commitment to participatory democracy when that party a) lies to b) justify unnecessary legislation that c) makes it more difficult for people to vote. These are the actions of a party that knows it cannot win when everyone votes. 

As citizens, we must reject the leaders who enact policies that erode the very foundations of our democracy. Restrictions on voting distort our representation and damage our republic. This damage, once done, will be hard to undo. We cannot allow it in Kentucky and, indeed, can do more to make it easier, more secure, and less expensive for everyone to participate in our democracy.


For Kentucky Democrats, the Only Way to Win is to Lose

by Ben Carter in


It’s a tough time to be a Kentucky Democrat. We’ve lost the state House of Representatives—badly and for the first time more than a century. Just look at this .gif of the Eastern Kentucky vote in 2008, 2012, and 2016. 

I’m from Greenup County and a Democrat, so this red wave hurts both my head and heart. Just watch this .gif for a moment and let that wave wash over your retinas. Time to think about some stuff. Photo courtesy of  @MetricMaps , who you should definitely follow on Twitter. 

I’m from Greenup County and a Democrat, so this red wave hurts both my head and heart. Just watch this .gif for a moment and let that wave wash over your retinas. Time to think about some stuff. Photo courtesy of @MetricMaps, who you should definitely follow on Twitter. 

Stark.

We have, as a national party, made ideological commitments to a multiracial, inclusive politics that has not translated well to a pretty rural, mostly white, mostly Christian Kentucky. And, by “not translated well” I mean, “Holy smokes, that was brutal.”

Meanwhile, our commitments to equality based on race, sexual orientation, gender, and national origin are non-negotiable. Let me put it this way: there will never be a moment that the KKK plans a celebration parade for a Democrat if I have anything to say about what being a Democrat means. 

With a national party building a young, multiracial, multiethnic, cosmopolitan coalition of voters, Kentucky Democrats find ourselves in what Ulysses McGill might call a “tight spot.” 

So, what are Kentucky Democrats to do? This is what we do. Here is my four-step plan to fight. 

STEP 1: LOSE

You guys, we are going to lose so hard. I mean, we already lost hard, but we are going to keep losing hard. We are going to lose more going forward than we have in the past. In Kentucky, the way to win is to challenge every state House seat, every state Senate seat, every Congressional seat, every statewide office every time. We run everywhere. Every time. Again and again. And we're going to lose terribly. It's going to be painful, occasionally embarrassing, and seemingly futile. 

And yet, these losing campaigns and candidates are our only hope. These fearless losers will be the ones showing up knowing they’re going to lose and fighting anyway. They will be the ones having tough conversations with neighbors and church members about their values, illustrating in word and action how their Christian faith informs their commitment to Democratic principles.

Step 2: Run Everywhere, Every time. 

In Kentucky, the way to win is to challenge every state House seat, every state Senate seat, every Congressional seat, every statewide office every time. We run everywhere. Every time. Again and again. This year, two Republican congressmen ran unopposed. In 100 state House races, 64 were contested and 11 Democrats ran unopposed while 25 Republicans ran unopposed. (You can see the full results here. Pay special attention to those House races where Republicans ran unopposed. Do you live there? This essay is especially for you.) 

We have to begin to compete everywhere. Every race that is unopposed is a race in which voters are hearing no counterargument, engaging in no conversation. No one is offering those voters a separate vision of how we can move forward as a Commonwealth and nation than the one offered by the unopposed Republican.

For the national party, waiting for the demographics to catch up with your ideological commitments may be a winning strategy. In Kentucky, we can take no comfort in demographics. Our mostly white, mostly Christian neighbors are mostly going to get older. Heck, unlike most states, we can’t even count on our millennials to vote Democrat. 

Source: https://mic.com/articles/157558/here-s-what-the-electoral-college-map-would-look-like-if-only-millennials-voted#.K6LJtiJzO

Source: https://mic.com/articles/157558/here-s-what-the-electoral-college-map-would-look-like-if-only-millennials-voted#.K6LJtiJzO

And, even if we could count on demographics, that’s still not the way to win. The way to win is to engage with our neighbors. To keep talking, advocating, listening, learning, shaking hands, building trust, and being helpful. We keep showing up. We fight everywhere for the hearts and confidence and votes of our neighbors. Not because we can win this next election or the one after that, but because we owe it to our neighbors to fight and our vision of the future compels it.

Though we may not intend it, when the Democratic Party fails to contest a race, we risk communicating to voters that we do not believe they or their votes are worth fighting for. That’s the wrong message to send to big chunks of our state for two reasons: 1) it’s not true, of course, and 2) it’s bad politics. 

As Democrats, we support raising the minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations, and paid sick-leave for all workers. We know that workers benefit in higher wages and safer workplaces when they are represented by unions and believe that any worker who benefits from union negotiations ought to also pay dues to the benefit negotiating those better wages and better working conditions. Let's take our case to our neighbors everywhere across Kentucky. 

As Democrats, we are proud of our President, Democrats in Congress and former Governor Steve Beshear for expanding access to affordable healthcare to tens of thousands of Kentuckians who desperately needed it. The Affordable Care Act has been a tremendous benefit to Kentucky and Kentuckians. But, our work is not over! Still more people need coverage and we are committed to reducing cost and expanding coverage.  

Step 3: Keep Losing

In case it’s not clear: I understand that the 25 people who could have run against these unchallenged Republicans would have lost. Badly.

So badly.

And, wow, the two Democrats that could have run against Brett Guthrie and Hal Rogers? Incinerated. Dust. 

We don't have any other choice but to fight and lose. We need candidates willing to stand up across Kentucky and say that the values they learned in Sunday School—inclusion, fair play, welcoming the stranger, caring for the needy—are the same values that inform their position on making taxes less regressive, ensuring that everyone that works makes a living wage, negotiating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in Kentucky, expanding access to affordable healthcare to everyone. 

Look, I understand that for some voters are never going to be for you if you’re not in favor of banning access to safe abortions and banning gay marriage. But, I don’t think that’s most voters. I especially don’t think that’s most voters after we’ve shown them our hearts and guts in race after race. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Democratic Party’s (non-negotiable) positions on these two issues will doom Kentucky Democrats to a century in the minority in Frankfort. I don’t think so, but maybe. 

What I think is more likely is that authentic candidates unwilling to compromise on core Democratic principles will begin to rebuild Democratic power slowly, one campaign at a time. This progress will be painfully slow for many Kentuckians who will be hurt by Republicans’ efforts to weaken unions, restrict voting rights, reduce state revenues by cutting taxes on the wealthy, roll back protections for the LGBTQ community, privatize public education, and limit Kentuckians’ access to trial by jury. But, we will make progress. 

I want to be super-clear on this: I don't think voters who vote "against their self-interest" are to blame. Part of a commitment to democracy is a belief that all voters are smart enough to decide what's important to them and what's in their best interest. I don't think voters who voted for Trump are bigots or racists or Islamaphobes (unless, of course, they are). Voters don't owe the Democratic Party anything and in places in the state where we ceded a full 25% of the House races without opposition, I understand the sentiment that Democrats have abandoned those places and don't care. Democrats have lost the credibility to cry, "But they're voting against their self-interest!" when across large swaths of the Commonwealth we've played virtually no role in helping to frame our neighbors' "self-interest" within a larger web of policy considerations.  

I am convinced: there is nothing about the Democratic Party’s national commitments and platform that prevents Democrats from winning in mostly rural, mostly white, mostly Christian Kentucky. By showing up, listening, learning, advocating, and arguing—even where we’re going to lose, heck, especially where we’re going to lose—Democrats will win in Kentucky again.    

Step Four: Organize and Train

This is going to be a long, long slog and to do it the Kentucky Democratic Party must commit to building an infrastructure to train candidates, amateur campaign managers, and volunteer campaign workers. Democratic grassroots in Kentucky are energized today like they haven't been in years. We understand: there is no one coming. It is up to us. The KDP must harness that grassroots energy and give its activists the tools they need to organize, fund, and execute campaigns across the state. 

We have already seen the success that organizations like Emerge Kentucky and Wellstone Action have had in training future candidates to run for office.

One recent graduate of the Emerge Kentucky program, McKenzie Cantrell, narrowly defeated a party-switching incumbent (who was well-supported by independent PAC spending) to return a Kentucky House seat to the Democrats earlier this month. Without Emerge Kentucky, I’m not sure McKenzie becomes Rep. Cantrell. (By the way, ladies, the deadline to apply for Emerge Kentucky's next training has been extended to December 1.)

Training people to run for office and run campaigns and organize communities works. Leadership, public speaking, campaigning, tweeting are not God-given gifts like height or 20/20 vision. They’re skills that can be learned, honed. Because we are going to run candidates everywhere, every time, the Kentucky Democratic Party owes its candidates and organizers this training. Not once candidates win a primary. Now. Before they run. While they run against other Democrats. All the time. All over the state. This is the work of the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Slowly, we will begin winning. It may be a surprise in a rural district from an especially strong candidate. Or, we may pick up a suburban district in northern Kentucky after a few swipes at it. But, slowly, we will begin to win.

Ironically, it may be a statewide office that we win first with the help of a bunch of losers at the bottom of a ticket. While coattails at the top of a ticket matter, people forget that having strong candidates at the bottom of a ticket can drive voters who otherwise may not have voted at all or may have otherwise voted for the other party to the polls. I’m not fancy enough to know what the opposite of coattails are, but they exist and—with the help of Kentucky Democrats in larger cities—these losers with reverse coattails may elect a Democratic governor in 2019 or a Democratic Senator in 2020. 

It probably won’t happen that fast, though, folks. We need to be real about where we are: this is a decade-long project and just a ton of hard work and losing. For a long time, we’re going to have to run in a way that says, “This is not about winning. This is about fighting.” Of course, I happen to believe that once Democrats stop caring about whether they win or lose, they will run the kinds of campaigns that will eventually win. 

Winning by losing. In a state where many of us worship a God whose death vouchsafed eternal life, it’s a strategy so crazy it just might work. 

Action Item: 

Share this post with someone you know who would make a good candidate for public office in Kentucky, some loser who loves a good fight. Tell them why you think they would make a good candidate, and, tell them you'll help. Tell them losing is okay: it's all part of the plan.


The Races I'm Watching

by Ben Carter


Alright, folks, here are the races I’ll be watching tonight and why. If you want to hang, I’ll be at The Silver Dollar with Judge Shake and crew.

19th District Senate

Morgan McGarvey’s a buddy of mine from law school and will make a damn good Senator. We’ll never end the war on young people without more young people making laws.

Commonwealth’s Attorney

My wife is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney. So, yeah, I’m kind of interested in who will be her next boss.

Court of Appeals

I’m for Judge Shake[1]. Here’s why I’m supporting him. This race, unlike the others mentioned here, isn’t over with the primary. Judge Shake will need your help all the way through the November 6 general election. So, go give him some money or like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Lexington’s Third District Council Seat

I like Diane Lawless. I think she does a good job and trust her judgment. Stephanie Spires has by all accounts run a very good race. She is married to John Spires, a law school buddy of mine. So, I’ll be interested to see the outcome of that race. Diane and Stephanie will face each other (I expect) in the general election in November.

98th District House of Representatives

This is my home district back in Greenup County. Rep. Tanya Pullin[2] is facing a primary from Tyler Murphy. I think Tanya’s demonstrated ability to pass legislation through a Republican-controlled State Senate and her reputation for, you know, reading bills, working hard, and actually caring is enough to warrant her reelection. Plus, I just can’t forgive Tyler Murphy for being this guy at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

So, those are the races I’ll be watching tonight. Good job for voting everybody.


  1. Full disclosure: I helped Judge Shake set up his website.  ↩

  2. Full disclosure: I helped Representative Pullin set up her website.  ↩


Why I Support Judge Shake for Kentucky Court of Appeals

by Ben Carter


The reality of judicial races is that people who work outside our legal system feel ill-equipped to cast an informed ballot. I'm often asked by my non-lawyer friends who they should vote for in judicial races. In the Court of Appeals race in Jefferson County, I suggest a vote for Judge Jim Shake

Judge Shake is a smart, pragmatic judge that works hard and takes risks to ensure that everyone has access to the court system and that the courts are solving problems. I know. In 2009, as the Chief Judge of the Jefferson Circuit Court, Judge Shake worked with advocates for homeowners (I was an attorney for the Legal Aid Society at the time), bank attorneys, community groups, and the court system to create the Foreclosure Conciliation Project. With the FCP, Jefferson County became the first court system in the state to attempt to address the exploding numbers of foreclosures in our community.

As part of the project, Judge Shake ensured that each homeowner facing foreclosure received credible, timely information about alternatives to foreclosure and steps to take to avoid foreclosure. The FCP provided homeowners with outreach, housing counseling, legal representation, and an opportunity to meet with their banks to pursue these alternatives. Hundreds of homeowners saved their home through the process that Judge Shake created and the lessons we learned in Jefferson County have influenced similar programs across the state.

Judge Shake has been a judge for 19 years. He knows the immense impact the courts have on Kentuckian's lives. The courts impact lives not just in individual cases, but also in the processes and procedures they build to solve emerging problems like the foreclosure crisis. I'm supporting Judge Shake because he has shown the willingness and ability to solve problems—big and small—as a judge.