This is the fifth in a series of articles examining changes to voting laws in every state. Sara Swann contributed research and reporting for this installment.
The ongoing election evolution in the United States, while in large part catalyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic, has been building momentum for years.
Many states were already undergoing major overhauls to their election systems leading up to the 2020 election, even before the pandemic gripped the nation. And in the aftermath of the presidential contest, states have doubled down on voting reforms.
To provide a comprehensive analysis of the voting law changes in every state and Washington, D.C., since 2019, The Fulcrum compiled data from the Voting Rights Lab, the National Conference for State Legislatures, the Brennan Center for Justice, the National Vote at Home Institute, and state statutes and constitutions. This fifth installment focuses on five Southern states.
Alabama and Tennessee, where Republicans hold the governor's seat and control both chambers of the legislature, saw several changes to their election systems in recent years. Louisiana also enacted a slate of modifications, despite having a divided government. Meanwhile in Mississippi, another Republican trifecta, and North Carolina, which has a divided government, only a few minor adjustments were made.
The chart below provides an overview of how voting practices have changed or remained the same in these five Southern states over the past two years. A more detailed explanation of each state's changes follows.
More from Election Evolution:
How the 5 most populous states have overhauled their election systems
How the 5 vote-by-mail states have overhauled their election systems
How 5 swing states have overhauled their election systems
How the 4 early primary states have overhauled their election systems
Over the past few years, Republican-led Alabama has enacted several new laws reforming its election system. For the 2020 election, the state temporarily allowed no-excuse absentee voting and early in-person voting due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Alabama has not made either policy permanent.
While an excuse is typically required to vote by mail in Alabama, in 2019 lawmakers expanded the list of acceptable circumstances for voting absentee, as well as allowed people with disabilities to sign up to permanently receive mailed ballots.
Also in 2019, a new rule was enacted requiring voters who wish to cast a ballot by mail to include a copy of their photo identification with their absentee ballot application. Additionally, completed mail ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day and received no later than a week after an election.
This year, Alabama banned voting outside, including curbside voting. Proponents of the ban say it will improve election security, while critics say the new rule will make it harder for disabled individuals to vote.
New rules were enacted this year extending the time voters have to return absentee ballot applications, as well as the time election officials have to process completed and returned mail ballots.
Alabama has also added new election crimes in recent years. One law prohibits individuals from taking a photograph or otherwise revealing the content of another voter's ballot at any polling place. Violating this rule is punishable as a misdemeanor. Another prohibits Alabamans from voting in any other state.
Other recent changes include:
- Elections officials are required to use National Change of Address data to ensure voter lists are up to date and to notify voters who may have moved that they need to update their information.
- A registered voter, or the spouse of a registered voter, who is a prosecutor, judge or law enforcement officer can request the secretary of state to omit all their personal information except their name and their spouse's name on voter registration lists.
- Poll worker eligibility has been expanded to allow any registered voter in a county to serve as a poll worker in any precinct.
Louisiana is one of the few Southern states with a divided government. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Republican-majority Legislature have found enough common ground in recent years to enact several changes that both ease access to the ballot box and tighten voting rules.
This year, lawmakers approved additional time for elections officials to process absentee ballots (up to three days before an election). Previously, officials could not begin the process until Election Day unless there was a state of emergency.
Voters will also have slightly more time to fill out their ballots, as a new rule extending the time an individual can remain at a voting machine from three to six minutes. Additionally, minors of any age are allowed to accompany their parents or guardians into the voting booth, when previously only pre-teen children were allowed.
For those who wish to vote ahead of Election Day, Louisiana extended the early voting period for presidential elections by four days. Voters may also have more early voting locations to choose from as a new rule allows registrars to offer any number of branch offices for early voting. (Previously, only one location per county was allowed.)
New rules for absentee voting were also enacted last year: Mail ballots cannot be sent to addresses associated with a business or political campaign, and witnesses for absentee ballots can only be immediate family.
Finally, Louisiana cannot suspend the registration of voters who have been convicted of a felony unless they have been incarcerated. Law enforcement officials are then required to notify election officials about which individuals are incarcerated and therefore ineligible to vote.
Other recent changes include:
- The secretary of state created a cure process that allows voters to fix any mistake on their ballot. However, this new rule is set to expire at the end of this year.
- Officials are instructed to remove deceased voters from the voter list within 30 days of receiving the Department of Health's monthly report.
- Officials cannot mark a voter as inactive unless the voter has failed to return the confirmation card after 30 days.
- A study group will be established to examine the accessibility of voting rights for people who are being incarcerated prior to trial.
- There is a new misdemeanor offense for the falsification of election information that is obtained by election officials.
- The rules prohibiting electioneering and voter intimidation have been clarified.
- There are new training requirements for election officials.
- Poll workers who fail to register to vote as required may receive criminal penalties.
While Republicans control the governorship and Legislature, Mississippi has not seen any permanent election changes in recent years, unlike other states in the South.
During last year's election, Mississippi made a temporary expansion to allow people in quarantine, or caring for others in quarantine, to vote in person before Election Day. Voters were also given additional time to return absentee ballots by mail.
For the 2020 election, Mississippi also appropriated funds to voting precincts so they could hire more poll workers. Election officials were also provided additional "pandemic pay" last year.
In recent years, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-majority Legislature have found little compromise on voting reforms so only a handful of changes have been made. And because the state is a presidential battleground, many of the efforts to modify North Carolina's election system have reached national prominence.
The most well-known dispute has been over the state's voter identification law, which is considered one of the most severe in the country. For nearly a decade, North Carolina has been locked in legal battles over its voter ID policies. After voters approved an amendment in 2018 requiring ID at the polls, the GOP-majority Legislature wrote the parameters for the rule.
But voting rights groups have challenged the voter ID policy, arguing it discriminates against Black voters. Due to ongoing lawsuits in state and federal court, the voter ID law is not in effect.
Two other significant changes to North Carolina's electoral system also came from recent court rulings.
In 2020, a federal court enjoined North Carolina officials from verifying absentee ballots through signature matching until the state afforded voters "due process" for potential ballot rejection. In response, the state Board of Elections instructed county officials to notify voters within one business day of any errors with their ballot and allow them to correct the mistake.
In North Carolina, people with felony convictions have their voting rights restored upon completion of their sentence, but financial obligations often hinder their eligibility. A state court ruled last year that election officials cannot prevent people with felony convictions from registering to vote if the only reason they have not been discharged from parole or probation is outstanding fines or fees.
No new voting laws have been enacted this year, but a few minor changes were made in 2019 and 2020, including:
- An online absentee ballot request system and an online ballot tracking system were established.
- The early voting period was adjusted to start on the third Thursday and end on the last Saturday before an election.
- Election crimes are now punishable as felony offenses.
Tennessee, a Republican trifecta, has enacted several provisions limiting voting access in recent years. Proponents of these changes argue they will prevent election fraud, but there is no widespread evidence of such malfeasance in the state or elsewhere in the country.
In 2019, the state imposed new rules for third-party voter registration organizations, including training requirements and civil and criminal penalties for the submission of "deficient" voter registration forms. Voting rights groups pushed back against these changes, successfully suing to have the new rules repealed in 2020.
This year, Tennessee made several changes to its rules around Election Day vote centers, also known as convenient voting centers. The new provisions revise a county's eligibility for the vote center pilot project, which was extended to all elections in 2022. Any county that has previously participated in the pilot project is eligible to establish permanent voting centers in the future.
Also this year, Tennessee lawmakers banned the use of private funding for election administration. This change was made in response to many states and counties across the country accepting private money for the 2020 election to help cover extra costs imposed by the pandemic.
Other recent voting changes include:
- A new watermark was created for absentee ballots to increase efficiency in the ballot counting process.
- Independent living facilities were added to the list of on-site absentee voting locations.
- A person convicted of voter fraud in any state is prohibited from assisting a person with voting in Tennessee.
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