LOUISVILLE, KY. — Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway turned to a federal appeals court Wednesday in his effort to preserve a state law that bans electioneering close to polling places, calling the buffer zone an important safeguard against Election Day shenanigans.
With the general election less than three weeks away, Conway moved quickly with his motion to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an effort to keep the law in place — pending an appeal — to insulate voters from campaign activities outside the polls.
The filing came a day after U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman ruled that the law’s 300-foot anti-electioneering buffer violates First Amendment speech rights. The judge issued a permanent injunction blocking the law’s enforcement.
Conway wants the appeals court to block Bertelsman’s ruling, which caught the attention of local election officials in Kentucky.
Leslie County Clerk James Lewis said he worries the absence of the electioneering law would bring back the days when candidates’ supporters flocked outside voting places to try to influence voters in his eastern Kentucky county.
“Voters had to run a gauntlet through these people just to get to the door,” Lewis said.
Lewis flatly said the judge’s ruling amounted to “a major setback for fraud-free elections in the state of Kentucky.”
The law was challenged by John Russell, a northern Kentucky businessman, after campaign signs were pulled from the yard of his auto body shop on election days in 2012 and 2014. He said the signs were removed by sheriff’s deputies because they were within 300 feet of a polling place at a church.
Christopher Wiest, one of Russell’s attorneys, expressed confidence in winning again on appeal.
“We think Judge Bertelsman reached the correct decision,” Wiest said.
Conway said he sees the 300-foot buffer as a reasonable safeguard.
“It gives us a tool against abuse,” he said. “With no restriction, it opens up a whole plethora of problems that we don’t want to see on Election Day.”
The lack of restrictions could cause congestion at polling places as campaign supporters mingle with voters, Conway said. Another concern is the possibility of efforts to intimidate voters, he said. Some precincts could be targeted based on past voting trends, he said.
Other state laws aimed at preventing election fraud, including vote buying, remain intact.
But political activists stationed outside voting places to promote local candidates could discourage some people from voting, Lewis said.
“People just don’t want to put up with that kind of thing when they’re going to vote,” Lewis said. “Voting is a very private act for most people, and they’d like for it to stay that way, to where they can go vote in peace.”
Without the electioneering law, Lewis said, he planned to ask for police patrols at his county’s voting precincts to prevent potential abuses.