FACT CHECK: Odd take on Constitution in Ky debate

AP News
Posted: Oct 14, 2014 5:14 PM
FACT CHECK: Odd take on Constitution in Ky debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — It might seem an odd question for a Democrat to keep ducking: Did you vote for President Barack Obama or not?

Can that be so hard?

In her Kentucky Senate debate Monday night with Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, Alison Lundergan Grimes said she won't answer that question "as a matter of principle" because doing so would compromise constitutional rights.

It's a puzzling interpretation of the constitution she was talking about — Kentucky's, which guarantees to all people of the state "the right of freely communicating their thoughts and opinions." So does the U.S. Constitution, in its own words, as lots of schoolchildren know.

On Tuesday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said it had stopped running ads in support of her Senate race, a blow to her campaign.

In their sole debate the night before, McConnell offered a head-scratcher, too. On one hand, he proposed pulling up Obama's health care law "root and branch." On the other hand, he said it would be fine to leave in the place the state's health insurance exchange — a creation of that very law, and hard to sustain without it.

A closer look at both issues:

GRIMES: "Our constitution grants, here in Kentucky, the constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box, for a secret ballot. You have that right, Sen. McConnell has that right, every Kentuckian has that right. And as secretary of state, the chief election official, I'm tasked with overseeing and making sure that we're enforcing all of our election laws.... I am not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or other side, or for members of the media. I'll protect that right for every Kentuckian."

THE FACTS: First, her motive: Obama is unpopular in Kentucky and Grimes wants a certain distance from him.

Constitutionally, the right to cast a secret ballot is guaranteed in Kentucky, as she said. (It is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.) But nothing requires Kentuckians particularly or Americans broadly to stay mum on their choice in the ballot box.

If so, pollsters who routinely ask people who's getting or got their vote would be out of business and Twitter would be a hotbed of constitutional sedition.

The U.S. Constitution is supreme; state constitutions can expand on but not constrict universal American rights. Kentucky's constitution, for example, sets certain voting conditions, barring "idiots and insane persons" from casting ballots, thanks to an amendment ratified in 1955. It guarantees "all elections by the people shall be by secret official ballot, furnished by public authority to the voters at the polls, and marked by each voter in private at the polls."

Yet everyone's free to blab about it if they want, or free not to, including a secretary of state who is in the thick of the political fray, as a candidate in a race where the outcome may shape what Obama can do in the next two years. Moreover, she was a delegate for Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

McConnell in his comeback left out the fact that people do have the right to remain silent on who got their vote, even if stonewalling is a bad idea politically. "There's also no sacred right to not announce how we vote," he said.

The Constitution gives rise to a vast array of freedoms and, as the debate showed, that includes the right to misinterpret it.


McConnell: "Kentucky Kynect is a website. It was paid for by a $200-and-some-odd-million grant from the federal government. The website can continue. But in my view, the best interest of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare, root and branch.... Now, with regard to Kynect, it's a state exchange. They can continue it if they'd like to. They'll have to pay for it because the grant will be over."

THE FACTS: If the health care law is a tree, to use McConnell's frequent analogy, the state health insurance exchanges are its trunk; along with Medicaid expansion it's for people who don't get insurance on the job to attain coverage. If the roots come up, that trunk topples.

In the debate, the senator spoke as if Kentucky's exchange, Kynect, is merely or mostly a website. It's more than that. Leaving it up, without the law's subsidies for premiums, without its guarantee of coverage for all, and without standards for the insurance plans offered, would leave up an empty shell.

Whether Kentuckians are better or worse off, on balance, with "Obamacare" than with what they had before, or what they could have instead, is a question that neither candidate wrestled to the ground in the debate. But McConnell's argument was consistent with a leading inconsistency of Republican critics of the law: They want it thrown out, yet are open to keeping parts that the public most obviously likes, without explaining how that could possibly happen.


Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.