Voters head to polls for primary races in NY and Kentucky

Voters headed to the polls in multiple US states on Tuesday to cast their ballots in congressional primary contests, including a closely watched race in Kentucky where Democrats are vying to take on the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, in November.

But there were reports of long lines in some parts of Kentucky, where state officials reduced the number of polling stations from 3,700 to just 170 — leading voting rights groups to raise fresh concerns about Republican efforts to limit ballot access with just over four months to go until November’s presidential election.

Just one polling station was open on Tuesday in each of Kentucky’s two largest counties, Jefferson and Fayette, which have high concentrations of black voters.

Democrat Charles Booker filed a last-minute injunction to ensure that voters in line when the polling station closed in Jefferson county were able to cast their ballots. His opponent, Amy McGrath, later said her campaign had also filed an injunction to keep the polls open.

Democrats and Republicans hold primary polls to select their candidates for November’s general election. However, many primaries have been pushed back because of public health concerns surrounding Covid-19.

But long before Tuesday, voting rights groups raised concerns that even with delayed elections, local officials have used coronavirus as a rationale to shut polling stations and limit access to mail-in voting — moves that are likely to suppress turnout. President Donald Trump has repeatedly falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud, and said in an interview last week with the website Politico that postal voting was the “biggest risk” to his re-election efforts.

When Georgia held its primary election earlier this month, voters endured long lines in areas where polling stations had been closed or understaffed, and there were widespread reports of glitches with new voting machines. Many voters said they did not receive absentee ballots despite requesting them, forcing them to decide whether to stay home or risk voting in-person during a pandemic.

The problems were concentrated in areas with high numbers of African-American voters, leading many voting rights groups to question whether Republican state officials had intentionally sought to suppress turnout in areas that were more likely to back Democrats.

Ahead of Tuesday’s primary, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia and is seen as a possible vice-president pick for Joe Biden, said on Twitter: “Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs & Jim Crow. It’s closed polling sites + 6 hr waits w/o pay. Covid is no excuse.”

The Democratic primary in Kentucky has attracted national interest since the winner will run against Mr McConnell, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, in November.

While the Senate majority leader is seen as likely to win another term in the general election, Ms McGrath, a 45-year-old former Marine fighter pilot, has raised huge sums of money, including from many out-of-state donors who are keen to topple the 78-year-old.

Ms McGrath has brought in $40.8m, according to filings to the Federal Election Commission, compared to Mr McConnell’s $31.8m — making the Kentucky contest the most expensive US Senate race this year.

She has faced a fresh challenge in recent weeks from Mr Booker, a 35-year-old African-American state legislator whose campaign has picked up steam during the widespread protests following the killing of George Floyd last month. Closer to home, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot dead by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in March after officers forced their way into her apartment.

Mr Booker has raised less than $800,000 for his campaign, according to the latest FEC filings — about 2 per cent of what Ms McGrath has brought in. But he has been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among other high-profile progressives, and has been backed by the editorial boards of Kentucky’s two major newspapers, the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier Journal.

An internal poll conducted earlier this month for the Booker campaign showed their candidate commanding 39 per cent of the vote, compared to Ms McGrath’s 49 per cent, and the campaign has struck an optimistic note in recent days.

“I am proud of us. I am so damn proud,” Mr Booker said on Twitter late on Monday. “Let’s shock the world tomorrow.”

Congressional primaries were also held on Tuesday in Virginia and New York, where Ms Ocasio-Cortez is being challenged by former CNBC television journalist Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, is also seeking to follow in Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s footsteps by ousting Eliot Engel, a longstanding Democratic congressman and close ally of Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives.

Final results of the primaries are not expected for many days, given large shares of voters were expected to use mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.