FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The top Republican and Democrat in the Kentucky House want to spare lawmakers from having to referee election disputes after dealing with an agonizingly close election outcome.
A House committee on Thursday advanced a bill that would set up an automatic recount if a legislative election’s margin is within 0.5 percent. After the recount, a candidate still contesting the election could take his or her grievances to court. The automatic recount also would apply to statewide constitutional races and Kentucky’s contests for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
In a show of bipartisanship, the measure is sponsored by House Speaker David Osborne and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins. They took turns pitching the bill to the committee.
The measure setting up the new process to handle election challenges is a response to Democrat Jim Glenn’s initial one-vote victory over Republican DJ Johnson in last year’s election in a western Kentucky state House district. The State Board of Elections certified Glenn as the winner.
Johnson asked the GOP-dominated House for a recount, relying on a rarely used state law that lets legislative candidates contest election results. That recount found nine additional votes — five for Johnson and four for Glenn — giving each candidate 6,323 votes.
When Johnson contested the election, the House appointed six Republicans and three Democrats — all chosen by random drawing — to an Election Contest Board to oversee the process.
At the time, Democrats criticized the process as overly partisan, and Glenn’s lawyer had asked the state’s Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, to investigate.
All of that went away when Johnson withdrew his challenge, keeping Glenn in the state legislature, but the dispute was a distraction for the House during the early days of this year’s legislative session.
The bill now headed to the full House would relieve Kentucky lawmakers from the contentious task of settling election challenges involving legislative candidates.
Osborne, a Republican from Prospect, said the Election Contest Board worked well in difficult circumstances, but said lawmakers had to “establish ground rules” in the middle of the dispute.
“That’s just something that we shouldn’t be put in a position to have to make those determinations on the fly,” he said.
Razor-thin election margins aren’t a rarity in Kentucky legislative elections, so the new process to handle election challenges could come into play. Adkins noted that three current House Democrats won their elections last year by a combined 13 votes.
“Every election that we have, we need to have it well-defined on how we’re going to settle any type of close election,” said Adkins, a Sandy Hook Democrat.
House Bill 522 sailed through the House committee, and with the two House leaders signed on as co-sponsors, it stands a much better chance in the final days of this year’s session. The bill would still need Senate approval if it passes the House.
During the committee hearing, Democratic Rep. McKenzie Cantrell said the bill aims to prevent “the heartburn that a lot of us had” over the disputed Glenn-Johnson election.
“We’re never going to completely be able to remove the politics from it,” she said. “But I do think that this is a step in the right direction.”