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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A candidate for the Kentucky State Senate has sued state and local election officials in federal court, claiming Constitutional violations in a 2013 law that keeps information on absentee ballot applications from being made public prior to an election.
Deb Sheldon, an Alexandria Republican running for the Senate seat being vacated by Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, filed the lawsuit last Thursday in U.S. District Court in Covington, Ky. Sheldon is asking a judge to order state officials, including Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, to make the voter data public.
State legislators amended Kentucky law during the 2013 General Assembly so that names, addresses and other information in a request for an absentee ballot stay private until "after the close of business hours" on the day of a general, primary or special election.
The law "prohibits and prevents Mrs. Sheldon and other similarly situated candidates from communicating her political platform, unique background, and values to a specific and highly likely group of voters, those who have applied for an absentee ballot for the upcoming May 20th primary election," according to Sheldon's complaint.
"By not providing any information regarding the voters who are likely going to vote based on their absentee ballot applications -- that infringes on Mrs. Sheldon's rights to engage in political speech, which is protected under the First Amendment," Steven J. Megerle, Sheldon's attorney, said in an interview.
Several national political consultants and voting experts interviewed by WDRB.com said the Kentucky law, which passed with bipartisan support, is rare. They weren't able to name other states with similar laws.
"I've never heard of anything like that before," said Doug Chapin, an election expert at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "I think it's fair to call that unusual."
At the same time, former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican who now directs Harvard University's Institute of Politics, said he would have supported such an approach. During his time in office, Grayson said he spoke with county clerks across the state who were concerned about giving out lists of voters who had requested absentee ballots.
"We know that's where the fraud takes place," he said.
The change in Kentucky law was included in one of three amendments – including one proclaiming Clark County, Ky., as the birthplace of beer cheese – added by the Republican-controlled Senate to a House bill ostensibly dealing with money transmitters. The Democrat-led House later approved the measure.
Sen. Bob Leeper, a Paducah Independent, sponsored the amendment. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Louisville Rep. Darryl Owens, a Democrat, sponsored a similar bill during the 2013 session that passed the Kentucky House without opposition. He said in a phone interview Monday that he pushed the legislation because making the lists known could lead to "undue pressure" on voters.
Grimes, a Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, supported Owens' bill and said in a February 2013 press release that "our absentee voters are the most susceptible to attempts to purchase their votes."
Owens' bill "will free absentee voters from the reality – or even the fear – of being victims of vote buying or undue influence and allow them to truly cast their votes in privacy, something all voters are entitled to do," Grimes said.
Lynn Zellen, a Grimes spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway's office also declined comment.
County clerks in Campbell and Bracken counties did not return phone messages.
The offices of House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers did not immediately comment.
Among the court documents filed by Sheldon is a letter she intends to send potential voters. In it, she says: "I am the only candidate in the race who is a veteran, mother, 100% pro-life, and I have publicly pledged not to a state pension as your next State Senator when elected."
Sheldon is one of three Republicans competing to win the May primary for the 24th District seat from Northern Kentucky and advance to the November general election. She has raised $23,820 for her bid, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, trailing candidate Wil Schroder, whose campaign war chest sits at $35,642.
The federal lawsuit, filed by Sheldon and her campaign committee, alleges that Sheldon sought the names of Republican voters in Campbell and Bracken counties who had applied for absentee ballots. The campaign then planned to contact them – an activity known as an "absentee ballot chase."
The county clerks cited the 2013 law in denying Sheldon's campaign the absentee ballot data, according to court documents. The lawsuit alleges those actions amount to a First Amendment violation.
Megerle, Sheldon's attorney, was a Covington city commissioner in 2009 when he pleaded guilty to campaign finance-related charges following a 2008 plan to hide his role in a negative advertisement against a city commission candidate.
Megerle said that case is not relevant to the Sheldon lawsuit.
Appealing to absentee voters is a typical part of the campaigning process, said Dennis W. Johnson, professor of political management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"In a close election you want to get out the vote," said Johnson, a board member of the American Association of Political Consultants. "This is no different than knocking on the doors of people on Election Day."