ELECTION 2011: Secretary of State candidates believe in their backgrounds

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By Stephen Lega


Landmark News Service

Bill Johnson is running for Kentucky Secretary of State because he is concerned about the future of the Commonwealth. Alison Lundergan Grimes is running because Kentuckians are hurting and she thinks they need and deserve strong leaders.

Grimes, the Democratic candidate, and Johnson, the Republican candidate, will square off on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Grimes, 32, is a business attorney, and she thinks her background is important to understand state and federal election laws as well as business laws in Kentucky.

“Our prior secretaries of state have been attorneys for a reason,” she said.

Johnson, 44, has worked in the private industry and has a background in information technology. He also spent 10 years in the Navy, where he worked as a nuclear compulsion engineer.

“I certainly learned a lot of problem-solving skills and leadership skills during that experience,” he said.

Identification, please

Grimes and Johnson differ with regard to what kind of identification should be required when someone shows up to vote.

Grimes said she supports the law as it exists today. She noted that Chapter 117.227 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes requires that a voter either be recognized as a personal acquaintance of a poll worker or that a voter provide identification, such as a credit card, driver’s license or Social Security card.

“The laws that are on the books are sufficient,” Grimes said.

Johnson, however, is advocating for a change in the law. He would prefer that Kentucky require all voters to produce photo identification on Election Day. In his view, it is a common sense security measure.

“You really can’t do anything without a picture ID. You can’t cash a check. You can’t open a bank account. Even cold medication requires a picture ID,” he said. “So, a picture ID is just a fundamental way of life anymore.”

Johnson said that states that have required photo identification have seen increased voter participation, and he said there are state legislators ready to sponsor a bill to change the state law.

“There’s a lot of broad based support across party lines for this type of common sense approach,” he said.

Grimes stressed that this is a decision that would have to be made by the General Assembly, and she will enforce whatever the law is. However, she repeated that she does not see any reason to change the law.

“In my personal view, I think we have broken down many barriers to the ballot box. And requiring individuals to go out and purchase a government-issued ID, for instance, telling my 91-year-old grandmother who doesn’t drive anymore that she needs to go purchase a government-issued ID to be able to vote on Election Day, I think it’s wrong,” she said.

Address verification

Another issue that has come up as a difference between the candidates is address verification.

In June, the Board of Elections issued a memo explaining how homeless individuals should be registered to vote. The memo advises that voters who are homeless should be registered in the courthouse precinct in their communities.

Johnson said allowing people to list their address as “place to place” rather than an identifiable location could open up elections to fraud.

“That’s a very, very dangerous precedent to say that anyone can arbitrarily assign the address by whichwe’re going to have somebody vote,” he said. “Just common sense tells you, boy that opens things up to manipulation.”

In July, Johnson filed a complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission against current Secretary of State Elaine Walker and the Kentucky State Board of Elections over the policy. In September, the ethics commission decided to take no action on Johnson’s complaint.

Johnson said the policy violates Section 145 of the state constitution, which reads “Every citizen of the United States of the age of eighteen years who has resided in the state one year, and in the county six months, and the precinct in which he offers to vote sixty days next preceding the election, shall be a voter in said precinct and not elsewhere ...”

Grimes said the state’s eligibility requirements for voters are spelled out in KRS Chapter 116.025, which reads that any resident of the state and precinct in which he or she is registered to vote and who meets the qualification to vote is allowed to vote.

Grimes said the voting registration policy for homeless voters was determined by the Board of Election, which a bipartisan board. She also said she has the same position as previous Secretaries of State of both parties.

She said the United States has taken many steps to open up the ballot box since the time when only white men who owned property were allowed to vote.

“I don’t think a citizen is any less qualified to vote because they don’t live in a four-walled dwelling,” she said. “That’s what state and federal law, that’s what the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, is all about.”

Johnson said he does not oppose allowing homeless citizens to vote, but he does think they should be required to provide an address where they can be communicated with, even if it is a homeless shelter or an unconventional address, such as a tent in a campground, provided that the local community allows someone to live there.

“I would rather honestly stop discussing whether or not an address is needed and start figuring out a way to make sure that everyone has an appropriate address,” Johnson said. “That’s the compassionate thing to do because homeless can’t get out of that situation without an address.”

Down to business

In addition to overseeing elections, the Secretary of State’s Office also handles a variety of business records for the Commonwealth.

Both candidates spoke of the need to improve the efforts started under former Secretary of State Trey Grayson to implement a “one stop shop” for businesses to file their information with the state. Both candidates also mentioned Senate Bill 8, which will require the Secretary of State’s Office to create an online portal so business will have one place to go to file their required documentation.

Johnson said in the private sector, he worked on Y2K remediation efforts, global information security efforts and helped save more than $300 million in his information technology role. He said this will be helpful in the Secretary of State’s Office.

“I learned in the mid-’90s at General Electric, how to really make processes efficient, cut waste, and improve quality,” he said.

Grimes pointed to her background as a business attorney. She said she knows the laws inside and out that affect businesses, and she knows that those laws need to be changed to help Kentucky reach out to and recruit small businesses and non-profit organizations.

“We have to let people know Kentucky is open for business,” Grimes said. “And first and foremost, the main way we do that is making sure we have the most competitive laws on the books.”

Both candidates said they believed they would be able to work with other government branches and officials.

Johnson, again, believed his private sector experience would be valuable.

“In the large companies I worked for with international responsibilities, you had to work across diverse teams that are also spread around the world,” he said. “So, I’m very experienced working across different groups to get things done.”

Grimes said she is proud to have the support of the leaders in the House, the minority leaders in the Senate as well as the current and former governors. She said her campaign has been focused on uniting people.

“We will be able to reach across the aisle and work effectively regardless of your partisanship to make sure that we’re moving the state in the right direction,” she said.

Closing thoughts

Both candidates hope to work with educators to encourage civics education and generate excitement about voting.

Grimes noted that this is one of her “Grimes Goals,” her plan to move Kentucky forward.

“It’s about the future of Kentucky, the direction we want to go in, whether we want to keep moving forward or move backward,” she said.

She added that she has a plan to implement her goals and a vision for the state.

“We’re going to make sure Kentucky and its citizens get back to work because at the end of the day making sure each Kentuckian has the opportunity to succeed is what this is about,” Grimes said.

Johnson said this is an important election. He noted that Kentucky’s unemployment remains above the national average, but he also said the state’s situation hasn’t improved regardless of which party has been in charge in Washington.

“If we want to improve our quality of life in Kentucky and make Kentucky grow, we need to have strong leadership in Kentucky,” he said.

Johnson added that he is excited about helping the state.

“I don’t think this is a race between Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I think this is a race between conservative ideas and liberal ideas. I would reach out to conservatives of all parties and ask them to support me.”