How blue states have overhauled their election systems, Part I
This is the sixth 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 sixth installment focuses on the four reliably Democratic states and the District of Columbia. The next part will round out the blue state report.
Democrats control the governor’s seat and both chambers of the legislature in Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, all of which took significant steps to expand ballot access over the past few years. Massachusetts, which regularly supports Democrats at the federal level, has a Republican governor and has been slow to make permanent the emergency changes implemented during the pandemic. And in Washington, D.C., the city council is still working through a number of proposed changes.
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
How 5 Southern states have overhauled their election systems
Connecticut, a Democratic trifecta (control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature), has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. But recent activity by the General Assembly has pushed in the opposite direction, towards more expansive voting rights through a wide-ranging bill enacted in 2021
Most notably, Connecticut will automatically restore voting eligibility to everyone convicted of a felony offense, following their release from incarceration, starting Jan. 1, 2022. Under previous law, voting rights were not restored until the individual had paid all fines and completed parole. The new law restores voting eligibility to people confined to community residences following a felony conviction and eliminates the prohibition on “mentally incompetent” people registering to vote.
That bill also included several provisions related to voting by mail. “No excuse” absentee voting is effectively permitted, at least temporarily, by allowing concerns about Covid-19 to be a qualifying excuse. Under existing law, the list only included those with a permanent physical disability. Connecticut also expanded absentee voting by permitting people who suffer from a long-term illness to be included in the permanent absentee list. Further loosening of vote-by-mail rules would require an amendment to the state Constitution.
The state did make the use of drop boxes for mail voting a permanent feature of elections.
For those who vote in person, Connecticut now requires employers to provide two hours of unpaid time off on election day as long as the employees request the time off at least two working days prior to the election.
Connecticut also adopted automatic voter registration. The state will register to vote, through an electronic system, at designated voter registration agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. Voter registration information will also be distributed at each high school in the state each fall.
Other recent voting changes include:
- The secretary of state must provide electronic absentee ballots to voters who cannot access the polling place due to visual impairment.
- A voter who wants to withdraw their returned absentee ballot and vote in person on Election Day must request their ballot by 5 p.m. on the fourth day before Election Day. Existing law allows voters to withdraw their absentee ballots until 10 a.m. on Election Day.
- A clerk must send absentee ballots to voters within 48 hours of receiving the application rather than 24 hours.
- Clerks can begin sorting absentee ballots 14 days before Election Day as opposed to seven days.
- The notice period for declaring a central counting location is decreased from 20 days to 10 days before the election.
- Officials can begin reviewing absentee ballots at 5 p.m. on the fourth day before Election Day and begin counting on Election Day. Existing law allows the registrar of voters to set a time.
- The secretary of state is required to create a system that allows individuals to submit an electronic signature for voting-related forms and applications.
- The secretary of state must also implement a pilot program for manual or electronic signature verification of absentee ballots for the 2022 election.
As such a small state, the political nature of Delaware’s elections is often relatively simple compared to many of its neighbors. In recent decades, it has strongly supported Democratic leaders throughout both state and federal elections and the party currently holds the leadership trifecta.
In the past three years, the legislature has passed several bills to revise voting procedures, including two major changes in 2021.
First, the state expanded its automatic voter registration system. Under the previous rules, a person doing business with the Department of Motor Vehicles was asked whether they wanted to register to vote. But the new law requires that the DMV automatically register applicants who provide documentation of U.S. citizenship, as well as report any name or address changes. The State Elections Commission is also now authorized to grant AVR responsibilities to select other agencies. These systems are to be launched at all DMVs and the other designated agencies by June 2024 at the latest.
A major resolution was also passed earlier this year that sets clear rules about redistricting in an effort to reduce gerrymandering. The resolution requires the General Assembly to draw legislative districts so that they must be, to the extent possible: contiguous, nearly equal in population, bounded by major roads, streams or other natural territories, and created in a manner that does not unduly favor any person or political party. Legislative redistricting information must also be available to the public, public input on redistricting must be solicited, and public hearings on any proposed plans must be provided.
In addition, Gov. John Carney signed a bill in 2019, that establishes an in-person early voting period. Beginning in 2022, registered voters will be permitted to cast ballots at least 10 day prior to election date. The bill also requires each county to have at least one polling place.
In 2019, the legislature passed a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would relax the rules for absentee voting. But state law requires such proposals to be approved in two consecutive sessions before becoming constitutional amendments, and this one was defeated in 2020.
District of Columbia
Washington has voted overwhelmingly blue in every presidential election, often with over 80 percent of votes going towards the Democratic candidate, since gaining the right to cast presidential ballots in 1961. In recent years, D.C. voting rights advocates have pushed for statehood to give residents voting and representation rights on par with other Americans, but that effort has not led to any results.
The D.C. Council, which governs the city, did not make permanent many of the emergency changes passed in 2020 to conduct the election during the pandemic. The most significant recent change is 2020’s passage of the Restore the Vote Amendment, which allows residents in jail or prison for a felony conviction to vote.
A separate 2020 bill also amended the election code to provide employees with a certain number of hours of paid leave in order to vote in person in any election.
The city council has held hearings on legislation to make permanent some of the emergency changes (no-excuse absentee voting, vote centers and expanded ballot boxes, for example), but no vote has been held.
Since 2019, the General Assembly has passed multiple bills to change how elections are run, including one to increase the availability of absentee ballots and another to grant voting rights to incarcerated individuals.
The absentee voting changes, all enacted in 2021, include:
- Allowing drop boxes to be used through the close of polls on Election Day.
- The creation of a permanent absentee voting list, which enrolled voters will remain on until they change their registration.
- Requiring the Board of Elections to draft proposed legislation for a procedure to electronically transmit ballots to voters with disabilities, allowing them to use assistive technology to vote absentee.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed a bill that expanded voting access for eligible voters confined in jails and required election authorities to collaborate with county jails to facilitate voting by mail. It includes a requirement that the county election authority establish a temporary branch polling place in the jail in any county with a population of at least 3 million. Additionally, a county jail is required to provide a voter registration application to any person in custody who requests one and is eligible to vote. Refusal by an eligible voter to participate in voting must be documented by the voter or witnessed by a poll watcher.
In 2021, the General Assembly passed a number of additional laws affecting voting rights for eligible jailed voters:
- The Department of Corrections is permitted to become a voter registration agency.
- The department is required to provide individuals in its custody with information about voter registration 45 days before their scheduled release.
- Adding onto the previous law, a sheriff in a county with a population of fewer than 3 million people can establish a temporary polling place in the county jail. Only incarcerated individuals who are residents of the county and have not been convicted can use the polling place.
- The Department of Juvenile Justice must expand its civics education programs for incarcerated individuals who are scheduled for discharge within 12 months. The program must provide access to voter registration and voting processes for incarcerated people who are eligible to vote.
A number of other expansive changes were passed in 2021. The General Assembly established Election Day 2022 as a state holiday, with mandated closure of schools and all government offices not related to election administration. Every high school is also mandated to provide students with a voter registration explainer and high schools are required to allow nonpartisan voter registration activities.
Election authorities are now required to operate vote centers — where any qualified voter may vote, regardless of their assigned precinct — during polling place hours on Election Day. Finally, the General Assembly also enacted a rule that permits election authorities to establish curbside voting.
A traditionally blue state, Massachusetts has been led in recent years by a Republican governor and Democratic legislature. During the pandemic, lawmakers implemented several temporary measures to expand voting rights and they are currently pushing to make those measures permanent.
In response to Covid-19, Massachusetts allowed municipalities to hold elections by mail and delay or postpone elections. Local election officials are also required to send mail-in ballots to voters as soon as possible.
The state also temporarily approved accommodations for disabilities. A voter may request to access a ballot electronically if their vision or mobility prevents them from accessing a traditional ballot. Clerks are required to make a reasonable effort to accommodate such voters.
The Legislature permanently altered early voting laws, specifying that the voting period for in-person early voting will run from the 11th day before the general election until the end of the second day before the election. It also passed new legislation to provide prepaid postage for mail ballots.
The Massachusetts Senate publicly supported the permanent adoption of the Covid-19 voting rights expansions on Oct. 6. The bill will be heading to the state House.
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