Retrofit Kentucky’s off-year elections

Published 7:18 pm Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Guest columnist

Another of Kentucky’s off-year primary elections, complete with poor – if somewhat better than expected – turnout and the completely unnecessary and wasteful spending of millions of taxpayer dollars, has come and gone.

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While 45 other states elect governors in even-numbered years when presidential or congressional candidates are on the ballot, Kentucky continues to suffer a bad case of “election retro” by stubbornly continuing to pick the commonwealth’s chief executive in odd-numbered years like we have since our Constitution deemed the first such elections would be held “on the first Tuesday after the fourth Monday in November, eighteen hundred and ninety-five, and the same day every four years thereafter.”

Stubbornness is usually a virtue when it comes to changing constitutions. 

But our nation’s founders, including those who founded Kentucky, also recognized changes to these foundational documents would occasionally need to occur.

Such is the case regarding when we elect governors and their running mates as well as attorneys general, secretaries of state, treasurers, auditors and agriculture commissioners. 

Continuing to hold elections that struggle to reach 20-percent turnout ensures very few citizens determine who will be governor and make decisions at the statewide level affecting the entire commonwealth more than anything the federal government can do to us.

Fewer than 13 percent of voters showed up at the ballot box during the 2015 primary election in which Republican Matt Bevin won his party’s primary over now-First District Congressman James Comer by 83 votes before besting Democratic nominee and Attorney General Jack Conway in the general election.

Yet Bevin actually ended up being elected by less than 16 percent of all registered voters.

It’s bewildering that those on the political left, who continue to spew verbal vitriol at Bevin and his conservative agenda, also persist in defending an election schedule in which such few Kentuckians choose the commonwealth’s most powerful politician.

Votes related to recent attempts to pass legislation folding the statewide officers’ election into an even-numbered year presidential or congressional contests have been along party lines with Frankfort’s Democratic bloc not only opposing the change but defending the status quo.

These critics accuse Republicans of trying to nationalize the races for the statewide offices, fussing that state issues and candidates will lose attention and diminish in importance, especially when a popular presidential candidate is on the ticket.

Yet it’s hard to diminish any more in importance than the less-than-20-percent turnout which has occurred during Kentucky’s past three primary elections.

It’s much more likely that candidates and issues at the center of these races stand a greater chance of receiving increased scrutiny if Kentuckians are actually going to the polls and casting votes regarding them.

Perhaps the political left is concerned about what such scrutiny might reveal.

Republicans can help remove the partisan rancor over the issue by leading on efforts to integrate the gubernatorial contest into mid-term election years when Kentuckians choose state and federal representatives, state and U.S. senators up for reelection and a host of local officeholders, but not presidents.

Such would be much more in line with the 34 states currently electing governors to four-year terms during mid-term elections.

A financial analysis by the Legislative Research Commission found merging the gubernatorial election with one of the even-numbered contests would save each of Kentucky’s 3,719 precincts about $4,000 which amounts to nearly $15 million per election plus $3 million kicked in by Frankfort.

Former Murray Rep. Kenny Imes, who introduced several bills proposing such a merger and who’s now Calloway County’s judge-executive, says the savings would help his county deal with increased pension costs and maybe even pave some roads.

“I never got a good argument on why my proposal shouldn’t be based on its merits,” Imes said.

Could it be because there isn’t one?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.