How 5 swing states have overhauled their election systems
This is the third in a series of articles examining changes to voting laws in every state. Faye Shen Li Thijssen and Cassidy Wang 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, and state statutes and constitutions. This third installment focuses on five swing states.
In Arizona and Georgia, two swing states with single-party control of government, Republicans enacted major election overhauls. In contrast, the divided governments in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin found little compromise in recent years, leading to only minor modifications.
The chart below provides an overview of how voting practices have changed or remained the same in these five swing states over the past two years. A more detailed explanation of each state's changes follows.
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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
While Arizona is a Republican trifecta (GOP control of the governor's seat and both legislative chambers), the state has become increasingly competitive in presidential elections over the past two decades. Last year was the first time Arizona went blue since Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996.
In recent years, Gov. Doug Ducey and Legislature have enacted many changes to the state's election system, including expansions to voter access and stricter election rules.
Two years ago, a ballot cure process was established, requiring election officials to notify voters of any issues with their ballot and giving voters the opportunity to correct it. Then this year, lawmakers tweaked this law to add a deadline of 7 p.m. on Election Day by which voters had to cure their ballots.
Also in 2019, lawmakers eliminated the rule that people with one felony conviction had to pay their legal fines and fees before having their voting rights restored. Former felons do still have to pay any outstanding restitution, though.
This year, Arizona enacted a new rule prohibiting election officials from sending mail ballots to voters who had not requested one, unless that voter is on the permanent absentee voting list. Violating this rule is a felony offense. This change came after several states proactively sent voters mail ballots and/or mail ballot applications for the 2020 election during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another mail voting change orders voters to be removed from the permanent early voting list — renamed the "active early voting list" — for not voting in two consecutive election cycles. Inactive voters have 90 days to respond to the notice before removal. This law does not prevent these voters from casting a ballot in person nor does it cancel their voter registration.
Earlier this year, Arizona lawmakers banned the use of private funding for election administration. This stems from many states and counties accepting private money last year to help cover the extra costs imposed by the pandemic. Legislators also created an "election integrity fund" to pay county recorder expenses for election security, cybersecurity and post-election ballot counting.
Multiple laws enacted this year shifted election authority away from the secretary of state, who traditionally is seen as the top election official in every state. The secretary of state is now required to give a Legislature-designated entity and the attorney general access to Arizona's voter rolls so they can ensure the list complies with federal law. Another law also gives the attorney general, rather than the secretary of state, authority to defend state laws in all election-related litigation through January 2023. And during an emergency, a state officer is prohibited from modifying any deadline or election-related date unless ordered to do so by a court. Violating this rule is punishable as a felony offense.
Other recent voting changes include:
- The requirement that Arizonans show non-photo identification to vote in person was extended to cover the early voting period.
- The Arizona Game and Fish Department is required to offer voter registration services to people who apply for a hunting, fishing or trapping license.
- Mail ballot return envelopes must be designed to conceal the voter's political affiliation.
- Replacement ballot centers must open at 6 a.m. during the state's mail ballot elections. (Previously, centers had to be open until 7 p.m. but an opening time was not specified.)
- If there aren't enough people in a certain precinct to serve as poll workers, then any registered voter in the state may volunteer to fill staffing vacancies.
- The secretary of state is required to use death records received from the state's department of health to cancel matching voter registrations.
- The attorney general and county attorneys must investigate and prosecute anyone who is ineligible and knowingly registers to vote.
- Party-appointed challengers and party representatives must be Arizona residents and registered voters. (Previously, there were no limits on who could be challengers or representatives.)
- It is now a felony offense for knowingly impersonating any election official, including an election board member, poll worker, officially designated challenger or party representative.
- Physical or electronic access to a voting machine or electronic pollbook must be secure to prevent unauthorized access and to verify the equipment before use.
- Voters who wish to cast a ballot at an emergency voting center must sign a statement under the penalty of perjury that they are experiencing an emergency that prevents them from voting during the early voting period or on Election Day. Violating this rule is punishable as a felony offense.
- The Arizona Legislature passed a resolution declaring opposition to federal regulation of elections, in particular the For the People Act.
Similar to Arizona, Republicans are in control of the Legislature and governorship in Georgia, and the state has become more competitive in recent presidential elections. The Peach State flipped blue last year for the first time since Clinton won in 1992.
Nearly all of the election changes Georgia has enacted over the last two years came from the GOP-backed omnibus bill that was passed this year. The bill received national attention and was lambasted by voting rights advocates for imposing several new limits to voter access.
Much of the omnibus bill was aimed at tightening rules around mail voting. Those changes include:
- Voters are required to provide their driver's license or state ID number on their mail ballot applications and the envelopes of their completed mail ballots.
- Election officials are prohibited from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters who do not request them.
- Third-party groups are barred from distributing absentee ballot applications that have been pre-filled. Applications sent by third parties must include a disclaimer that identifies the group as a non-governmental organization.
- Counties must provide at least one drop box. Additional drop boxes can be offered based on the number of registered voters or early voting sites. Drop boxes must be placed indoors at early voting sites and government buildings, meaning voters can only return ballots during business hours.
- The absentee ballot application period was cut from nearly six months before an election to less than three months. The deadline for applying to vote by mail is now the 11th day before an election.
- Election officials now have less time to begin issuing absentee ballots. Clerks cannot send ballots until 29-25 days before an election. (Previously, ballots could be sent 49-45 days before.)
- Election clerks can begin processing absentee ballots three weeks before an election, rather than after the opening of polls on Election Day. Once the ballot counting process begins after polls close on Election Day, election officials are not permitted to stop until the process is complete.
The omnibus bill also modified rules around in-person voting. Mobile voting centers are now prohibited unless the governor declares a state of emergency. Polling location hours cannot be extended unless ordered by a superior court judge. And counties are now required to notify voters of a polling place location change at least seven days before an election.
Additionally, early in-person voting availability was limited. Counties must offer early voting during weekday working hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Local officials can extend these hours but not before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. Early voting must be available on two Saturdays — rather than just one — but Sunday voting is optional. County officials must post early voting locations at least two weeks before voting begins.
Several new election crimes were created. Giving or offering a voter "money or gifts," including food or drink, at a polling place is punishable as a misdemeanor. It's a felony to watch a person cast their ballot, unless the viewer is an authorized assistant or a minor child. Recording or photographing a voted ballot or the screen of a machine while a vote is being cast is a misdemeanor.
Additionally, it's a felony to accept an absentee ballot from a voter for delivery or return unless statutorily authorized to do so. Handling of an absentee ballot application by anyone other than the voter or an authorized third party is punishable as a misdemeanor. Knowingly opening a sealed ballot envelope is a felony. And third parties who are not election officials are prohibited from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters who have already requested or cast a ballot. Violations could lead to fines of $100 per duplicate application.
Georgia's attorney general is now authorized to establish a hotline for voters to call in complaints and anonymous tips regarding voter intimidation, fraud and illegal election activities.
Other recent voting changes include:
- Provisional ballots cast out-of-precinct cannot be counted by officials before 5 p.m. on Election Day. These ballots must be accompanied by a sworn statement that the voter could not cast a ballot at their home precinct before the polls closed.
- Counties must ensure poll watchers have designated areas within a polling place to fairly observe the ballot-counting process. Poll watchers must be trained by the organization they represent.
- Individuals may serve as poll officers in counties in which they neither live nor are employed by the county, with prior approval from county election superintendents.
- Counties must report and post information about the total number of ballots cast and rejected as soon as possible after polls close, and no later than 10 p.m., on Election Day.
- The secretary of state must regularly obtain information from the interstate Election Registration Information Center to maintain the accuracy of the state's voter rolls. Georgia first joined ERIC in 2019.
- Officials must give any eligible voters serving jail time access to their personal effects for the purpose of applying for and voting an absentee ballot.
- The use of private funding for election administration is prohibited.
- A nonpartisan individual chosen by the Legislature is now the chairperson of the state election board, demoting the secretary of state to a non-voting ex officio member.
- If precincts have more than 2,000 voters and wait times longer than an hour in the 2020 election, officials are permitted to divide the precincts and/or add more poll workers and voting equipment.
Michigan has long been considered a battleground state even though from 1992 to 2012 it went to the Democratic presidential candidate. Then in 2016, Donald Trump won the state by a razor-thin 0.2 percentage points. The state went back to blue last year when Joe Biden narrowly won.
With Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature's Republican majorities at odds, Michigan has not seen as many changes in election law compared to other states.
In 2019, the state's online voter registration system launched and automatic voter registration was implemented at motor vehicle agencies. That same year Michigan joined the Electronic Registration Information Center to improve the accuracy and efficiency of its voter rolls.
Ahead of last year's election, Michigan enacted a law requiring newly installed ballot drop boxes to follow certain procedures for proper labeling, security and monitoring.
Earlier this year, the Legislature adopted a resolution urging Congress and Biden to oppose the passage of the For the People Act.
Similar to Michigan, the divided government in Minnesota has resulted in only a few small changes to the election system over the past two years. Democrat Tim Walz is governor and the Legislature is split between the Republican-majority Senate and the Democrat-majority House of Representatives.
Earlier this year, Minnesota adopted new security measures for absentee ballot drop boxes. Each drop box must be weather-proof, designed to prevent unauthorized tampering, continually recorded during the absentee voting period and emptied at least once a day. The locations of drop boxes must be published. Electioneering activity within 100 feet of a drop box is prohibited.
This year, the state also appropriated funds to improve election administration and security. The funds will be used to modernize the voter registration system and implement cybersecurity updates, as well as provide training for local election officials.
Additionally, a law enacted this year requires lists of rejected absentee ballots to be made available to the public after voting ends on Election Day.
In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point, breaking the state's eight-election streak of going to the Democratic presidential candidate. Biden turned Wisconsin blue again with his narrow win.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vetoed multiple restrictive voting bills sent to his desk this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature. As a result, only minor voting law changes have occurred recently.
Home-schooled students who are at least 16 years old can now serve as poll workers. (Previously, only students at public, private or tribal schools could do so.) And the Wisconsin Elections Commission is required to post meeting minutes within 48 hours of a meeting or hearing.
Other recent changes have been a result of litigation. Last year, a federal appeals court restored a requirement that residents must live in a district for 28 days — instead of 10 — to be eligible to vote. The same court also declared the emailing or faxing of absentee ballots to be unconstitutional.
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