Kentucky is having a gubernatorial race this year, and a senatorial race next year. But those elections are dependent on questionable voting machines.
According to the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office, 22 counties across the commonwealth — Breathitt, Clay, Clinton, Elliott, Floyd, Jackson, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Laurel, Lee, Leslie, Letcher, Lincoln, Magoffin, Martin, Meniffee, Morgan, Pendleton, Powell, Rockcastle, and Wolfe — use voting machines made by the company Election Systems & Software (ES&S). All told, there are 419 precincts in those counties using a total of 777 ES&S voting machines.
There are legitimate concerns about the security of ES&S voting machines. A 2018 report in the Louisville Courier-Journal found that those machines were easily hacked in two days during a hacker conference in 2017. To her credit, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said the Kentucky Board of Elections is using approximately $4.6 million in federal money granted to states for election security to update those machines to have a paper trail, making them easier to audit. Those machines are expected to be in use in time for the 2020 election.
However, ES&S machines may have another hidden problem: The company that makes them has donated at least $32,500 to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). Campaign finance records show that ES&S made four separate donations to the RSLC each year between 2014 and 2016. The RSLC seeks to move state legislatures toward majority-Republican control. In 2014, election data site Ballotpedia shows that 51 percent of state lawmakers across the U.S. were Republicans. But by the time of the 2017 elections, that number had jumped to 56 percent.
It’s not proven whether or not ES&S machines played any role in electing more Republican state legislators over that period of time, but they aren’t the first voting machine manufacturer to rouse suspicions of partisanship. In 2003, for example, Wally Odell — CEO of voting machine company Diebold — promised that he would help then-President George W. Bush win the state of Ohio in a fundraising letter to Republicans.
“I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president,” Odell wrote.
Bush did indeed win Ohio, which helped him secure re-election to another four years in office. That same year, In These Times reported on how Diebold was aware of the vulnerability of its machines to hacking attempts:
Diebold, the country’s largest voting machine company, made news in 2003 when leaked interoffice memos revealed that company executives knew that their machines were poorly protected against hackers… In Ohio, more than 35 counties used Diebold machines and nationwide, according to the company’s Web site “over 75,000 Diebold electronic voting stations are being used.”
So, somebody could have hacked the vote.
The people residing in the 22 Kentucky counties with ES&S machines only represent 388,340 Kentuckians out of more than 4.4 million in the commonwealth (according to 2017 U.S. Census records). And if one were to go by Census data showing that approximately 78 percent of Kentuckians are voting age, then 302,905 of those Kentuckians would be of voting age — and possibly more before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is on the ballot in November of 2020.
That may not sound like a lot of people, but it’s enough to make the difference in a close election. In 2014, McConnell won re-election by roughly 262,000 votes over Alison Lundergan Grimes. And in 2015, Matt Bevin was elected governor by a much smaller margin, defeating Democrat Jack Conway by approximately 75,000 votes. Despite Kentucky’s reputation as a reliable Republican state, Both Bevin and McConnell are vulnerable according to recent polls.
A February survey of Kentucky voters conducted by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that McConnell had just 33 percent approval, even though President Trump remained popular with 59 percent of respondents approving of his performance in office. Bevin, for his part, is the 6th most unpopular governor in the U.S., with just 34 percent approval from Kentucky voters in a January 2019 Morning Consult poll.
The unpopularity of the state’s most prominent Republicans in polls didn’t translate to electoral success in 2018. After the November election, Democrats only had one net gain in the assembly, allowing Republicans to keep their 60-seat supermajority. This happened despite thousands of teachers converging on the state capitol repeatedly throughout 2018 for more public education funding, and in opposition to Bevin’s attempts to cut state employee pensions.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.