Judge refuses to temporarily block new election-related law

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky judge has refused to temporarily block a new law aimed at removing much of the secretary of state’s authority over the State Board of Elections.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes sought a temporary injunction against the law she claims amounts to an unconstitutional infringement of her executive authority.

The law, enacted by the Republican-dominated legislature this year, removes the secretary of state as chairman and a voting member of the elections board. It carried an emergency clause allowing it to take effect immediately after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed it. Grimes — one of the state’s most prominent Democrats — says the law was politically motivated.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd on Thursday denied her request for the injunction, saying Grimes had failed to demonstrate “the likelihood of irreparable harm.” The judge said the “harm theorized” by Grimes — namely that deadlocks among voting members of the elections board could not be resolved by her tie-breaking vote — is “speculative at this time.”

But Shepherd said Grimes retains her “statutorily-granted title” as chief elections officer.

“As such, she possesses authority to take all necessary and appropriate measures to administer the duties of her position, including resolving a deadlock,” the judge wrote in his order. “Any specific challenge to her actions can then be addressed in court.”

Grimes said she’s disappointed the law wasn’t temporarily blocked but said she appreciates the judge’s “acknowledgement of my authority.”

“I’m confident that with additional time, the court will be able to address the full merits of my claim before the November election,” Grimes said in a statement.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said the judge’s refusal to block the law was a “victory for legislative immunity.” Thayer led the push to rein in Grimes’ power.

“I think it’s a pretty frivolous lawsuit,” the Republican lawmaker said in a phone interview.

The law also limits access by the secretary of state’s office to a database of registered voters. It makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to misuse the state’s voter registration system.

The secretary of state and two designees are allowed access to the database under the law, but they could not make changes to it without approval from the elections board.

The measure came after two employees at the elections board accused Grimes of wielding excessive power over the board and using her access to the voter database for political purposes. Grimes denies the allegations, saying her office followed the law “at all times.”

Grimes’ suit claims the law violates constitutional separation of powers. It also claims the elections board was unlawfully reconstituted into an independent state agency.

By relegating the secretary of state to a nonvoting member, it leaves an equal number of Democrats and Republicans as voting members of the board, her suit said.

The result could be gridlock, it said, impeding efforts by the secretary of state and the elections board to administer free and fair elections.

The law also added two retired county clerks, one Democrat and one Republican, to the elections board. Shepherd’s order referred to them as nonvoting members.

Grimes said she’s grateful for the judge’s “clarification” about their status as nonvoting members. She said it “stands in stark contrast” to how the board conducted its past three meetings, when the new members were allowed to “vote on every matter before the board.”

Grimes is in her second term as secretary of state and cannot seek reelection this year because of term limits. She considered running for governor this year but decided against it. Grimes lost a high-profile U.S. Senate race against Republican Mitch McConnell in 2014.