How red states have overhauled their election systems, part II
This is the ninth in a series of articles examining changes to voting laws in every state.
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 ninth installment focuses on the five reliably Republican states.
Republicans have complete control over the executive and legislative branches of government in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Each of the states made some modifications to their election laws over the past three years, although some went much further than others.
The chart below provides an overview of how voting practices have changed or remained the same in these 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
How 5 swing states have overhauled their election systems
How the 4 early primary states have overhauled their election systems
How 5 Southern states have overhauled their election systems
How blue states have overhauled their election systems, Part I
How blue states have overhauled their election systems, Part II
How red states have overhauled their election systems, part I
The Show Me State, which had supported three Democratic presidential candidates in the six elections from 1976 to 1996 but has backed every Republican presidential candidate since 2000, put into place few changes to voting procedures over the past three years.
In 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Missouri allowed all registered voters to cast ballots by mail. However, that expansion of ballot access expired on Dec. 21, 2020.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in January 2020 that the state’s voter identification law, which required the submission of an affidavit for non-photo forms of ID, violated the state Constitution. As a result, voters are now allowed to use non-photo forms of ID such as bank statements, college IDs and election cards.
As a predominantly white, rural, sparsely populated state, Montana has demonstrated strong Republican majorities throughout much of its recent history. The GOP controls about two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of the Legislature, and Gov. Greg Gianforte, is also a Republican. The state has voted in favor of the Republican presidential candidate in every election since 1968.
Over the past three years, there have been numerous changes to the state’s election legislation, tightening some rules but also easing certain aspects of the voting process.
In 2021, Gianforte signed a bill eliminating same-day voter registration (setting the deadline as noon the day before an election) and another creating a photo ID requirement to vote. Any person who attempts to vote without a photo ID or a concealed carry permit must provide two alternate forms of identification.
One of the new laws prohibits political parties from participating in election-related activities on college campuses, such as registering voters or encouraging people to cast ballots. Punishment includes a $1,000 fine for each violation. While the law was to go into effect on July 1, 2021, implementation has been delayed by lawsuits.
Two other bills also address election-related criminal issues. One bill expands the instances in which deceiving a disabled voter is a misdemeanor offense. Another directs the secretary of state to adopt a rule prohibiting people from receiving payment in exchange for returning a ballot on behalf of another voter. The penalty is $100 per ballot.
On the other hand, the state passed new measures to make it easier to vote in certain cases. Multiple laws set requirements for accessible voting technology at every polling place during every election, making it easier for voters with disabilities to cast their ballots. Another expanded the list of valid identification options for registering and voting, to include military ID, tribal ID cards and others.
Additional changes include:
- Allowing uniformed overseas voters to use a secure digital signature for registering and voting.
- Allows voters who registered late to return their absentee ballot to a polling place on Election Day.
- Permitting a third party to return a ballot on behalf of a voter. The law includes certain restrictions that are currently blocked by a permanent injunction issued in September 2020.
- Expanding the window for preparing absentee ballots to be counted from one business day before Election Day to three business days. (The window is narrower in counties with small populations.) Automatic tabulation may begin one day before Election Day but manual counting cannot start until Election Day.
- Shortening the required hours that a polling place must be open in precincts with fewer than 400 registered voters who plan to vote in person. Notice of a change in hours must be mailed to voters no later than 30 days before the election. The hours for a polling place that is partially or entirely within an American Indian reservation may not be changed prior to consulting with reservation leaders.
- Requiring annual voter list maintenance, rather than an every-other-year review.
Nebraska politics has been predominantly led by the Republican Party for decades. In almost every presidential election since 1940 (with 1964 being the outlier), the Republican candidate has won the majority of the state’s votes. Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral, nonpartisan legislative system, although lawmakers do affiliate with the political parties.
Most of the election law changes made since 2019 were relatively minor adjustments to existing laws.
One wide-ranging bill enacted in 2020 defines the requirements and rules for pollwatchers, allows hand-delivery of ballots to the county clerk and requires at least one 24-hour drop box to be placed in each county at least 10 days before an election.
Other changes include:
- Allowing the secretary of state to charge voter registration information with the interstate Electronic Registration Infrastructure Center.
- Limiting the sharing of voter lists received through public records requests.
Republican presidential candidates have long been victorious in Oklahoma, with Lyndon Johnson's win in 1964 being the only exception since the 1940s. Over the past five elections, Republicans have defeated Democrats by more than 30 percent. That dominance extends to the state level, with the GOP controlling the governor’s office and both legislative chambers.
While the Legislature enacted a number of changes to make voting easier, those modifications were accompanied by more restrictive laws.
In 2019, lawmakers passed a bill that allows people at least 17.5 years of age to pre-register to vote and requires employers to give employees two hours off to vote during early voting periods.
In the same year, a new law authorized the Board of Elections to order post-election audits and required county election officials to undertake new cybersecurity measures. The board is also authorized to declare an election emergency in response to security threats or interference.
The following year, the Legislature passed laws tightening the rules on third parties returning absentee ballots on behalf of voters. Such “ballot harvesting” is prohibited with a few exceptions such as a spouse or close relative. Limitations were also placed on assisting voters with filling out absentee ballots. An incapacitated voter may only request the assistance of absentee voting board members to mark a ballot, complete the affidavit or seal envelopes. Absentee ballots must now be notarized or include a copy of their ID.
In 2021, the Legislature shortened the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot by eight days but also expanded the hours for early voting. For general elections in even years, Wednesday early voting is now offered and Saturday early voting begins an hour earlier. The state also instituted an earlier deadline for absentee ballot applications, moving it from seven days before an election to 15.
Oklahoma also instituted new rules around voter list maintenance and purges. They include:
- County election boards are required to cancel the registration of deceased voters within 30 days of receiving the Department of Health’s monthly list of resident deaths.
- State officials are authorized to enroll Oklahoma in voter list maintenance programs and make use of data gleaned through membership.
- The secretary of state can use National Change of Address data for voter list maintenance.
The Legislature also repealed Oklahoma’s existing ban on recounts of statewide issue or question elections, mandating automatic recounts by the Board of Elections in those two circumstances. The governor or attorney general is allowed to request recounts through a petition to the board.
West Virginia, another Republican trifecta with a history of backing GOP presidential candidates, has enacted a limited number of permanent voting laws since 2019.
The Legislature has expanded absentee voting eligibility in recent years. In 2019, the state increased access to absentee ballots for people with disabilities, illnesses or injuries. While the secretary of state allowed all voters to vote by mail in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, that policy expired after that election.
The state also allowed counties to store and maintain voter registration records in a digital format in 2020.
In 2021, West Virginia expanded ballot return options for voters with physical disabilities and voters who are overseas and in the military. Although several new laws aimed at improving West Virginia’s mail voting system were proposed in 2021, none were passed.
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