This is the first 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 first installment focuses on the five most populous states.
In California and New York, where Democrats control the state legislature and the governorship, the adjustments largely eased access to the ballot box, whereas Republican-led Florida and Texas mostly focused on tightening the voting rules. And in Pennsylvania, where there's a divided government, compromise on voting changes has been hard to come by.
The chart below provides an overview of how voting practices have changed or remained the same in the five most populous states over the past two years. A more detailed explanation of each state's changes follows.
The country's most populous state is also one of the most accessible in terms of voting. Most of the election reforms enacted over the last two years were small and built upon the expansions already in place.
One significant change, though, happened last year when voters approved a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions upon their release from prison. Previously, these individuals remained disenfranchised until they finished their probation or parole.
California also extended a temporary vote-by-mail expansion made for the 2020 election. All counties will continue to conduct primarily vote-by-mail elections until the end of this year. Then, in 2022, the state will revert back to allowing counties to decide how to conduct elections.
Other recent voting changes include:
- Voters can now update their registration or change their party affiliation up until the close of polls on Election Day. Previously, the cut-off date was 15 days before an election.
- The state government now pays the postage for mail ballots.
- If a person is unable to return their mail ballot, they can designate someone else to do so. However, the designated person is prohibited from receiving any form of compensation for returning a ballot.
- Los Angeles County established county-wide vote centers last year. Any county in California can opt in to using these types of polling places.
- A law that could trigger removal from the voter rolls if a person had not voted within the last four years was rendered inoperative. It will be repealed in 2029.
The Lone Star State has garnered national attention this year for its ongoing partisan disputes over voting legislation. Republicans are pushing to tighten voting access and Democrats have twice fled Austin to thwart their efforts by preventing the required quorum.
Since 2019 Texas lawmakers have made significant changes to voting and elections, but not all of them have been restrictive. For instance, this year the secretary of state was authorized to maintain an online vote-by-mail tracking system, so voters can check the status of their applications and ballots. Interpreters are also now available for voters who require assistance reading or marking ballots at an in-person polling location.
However, there were a couple laws that did explicitly limit voting access. A month before the Nov. 3 election, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order limiting absentee ballot drop-off locations to just one per county.
And this past May, lawmakers tightened the language around what excuses are accepted to vote absentee. The following reasons are not considered valid: lack of transportation, a sickness that did not otherwise prevent the voter from leaving their residence or a requirement to appear at the voter's place of employment on Election Day.
The impacts of Texas' other recent voting changes are either mixed or unclear. For example, a 2019 law requires early voting sites to stay open for the entire early voting period. However, that law eliminates the possibility of mobile voting sites, a restriction that voting rights advocates said harms young and rural voters.
Earlier this year, the state's election rules were tweaked to clarify who is allowed to be in a polling place (e.g., voters, election workers, poll watchers and elected officials) from the time the presiding judge arrives on Election Day to make the preliminary arrangements until the precinct returns have been certified.
Two new laws also impose penalties for election violations. One makes it a felony to count votes that are considered invalid or to not count votes that are considered valid. Another allows voters to file complaints with the secretary of state about election clerks who fail to post the required daily roster of people who have cast early ballots.
Another recently enacted measure limits the use of private money by requiring election officials to get approval from the secretary of state before accepting donations of $1,000 or more for election administration. And the secretary of state must get unanimous approval from the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the state House before instructing election officials.
Texas made additional changes to the way voter rolls are maintained:
- In March 2020, Texas joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, an interstate alliance to improve the accuracy and efficiency of voter registration lists.
- In the same month, a law was enacted requiring local officials to provide information about deceased voters within seven days (rather than 10) of the monthly data preparation deadline.
- In June, election officials were authorized to issue notices to voters who appear to be registered at a non-residential address. Once notified, voters must then take steps to prove it is their residential address.
- Also last month, the secretary of state was authorized to withhold funds from any registrar that fails to perform mandatory voter roll maintenance.
Similar to Texas, Florida has been at the center of the voting rights debate following the 2020 election. Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers passed, and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis signed, an omnibus bill largely focused on tightening rules around voting by mail.
Vote-by-mail changes enacted through the omnibus bill include:
- Floridians who wish to vote absentee must provide their driver's license number, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.
- Absentee ballot drop box availability is limited to when voting centers are open.
- Drop boxes must be supervised by an election worker while in use.
- Drop box locations must be announced 30 days before an election and cannot be changed unless they violate the rules. This eliminates mobile drop boxes.
- State officials are expressly prohibited from sending out mail ballots without the voter's request.
- The printing of party affiliation or other partisan information on a ballot return envelope is prohibited.
- Voters can sign up to receive absentee ballots for every election in a general election year. However, Florida does not offer a permanent voting list.
- A person cannot return more than two absentee ballots in addition to their own and a ballot belonging to an immediate family member, which tamps down on so-called "ballot harvesting." Violations of this rule are punishable as a misdemeanor.
New rules are also in place for in-person voting. "Engaging in any activity with the intent to influence or the effect of influencing a voter" at voting sites, including drop boxes, is prohibited. Violations of this rule are punishable as a misdemeanor. The "no electioneering" zone around polling places and drop boxes was extended from 100 feet to 150 feet as well.
Election officials who violate the rules around drop boxes could be fined up to $25,000, in accordance with the recently enacted law. The measure also prohibits election officials from accepting private funding or other support for election-related expenses, voter education or voter registration programs.
The omnibus bill also makes slight changes to the voter registration process, requiring in some circumstances that voters present identification when updating their information. The measure also allows political parties and campaigns to oversee the canvassing process and challenge ballots for potential issues.
Another major voting change was made two years ago when lawmakers approved a requirement that people with felony convictions pay all outstanding fines and fees before their voting rights could be restored. This rule was approved after voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 restoring voting eligibility to people who had completed their sentence including probation or parole.
However, voting rights advocates have fought this requirement in court, arguing that mandating former felons pay fines and fees before being allowed to vote is equivalent to imposing poll taxes on Black people in the South after the Civil War.
On the other hand, Florida took a small step to help the recently released: Voter registration forms must include information on how formerly incarcerated individuals can register to vote.
Also in 2019, Florida joined ERIC to improve the accuracy and efficiency of its voter rolls.
Over the last two years, New York has seen several voting easements, including the adoption of online voter registration and early in-person voting. The state also recently started allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote.
Last year, state lawmakers approved automatic voter registration, which is expected to start being implemented statewide in 2023. This year the State University of New York system was designated as an official registration agency for AVR.
In May, the requirement that people with past felony convictions complete their probation or parole before regaining the right to vote was eliminated. The measure also includes provisions to ensure adequate voter education about this change.
And more expansions could be on the horizon. Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a ballot initiative to adopt no-excuse absentee voting, which voters will decide on this November. This comes on the heels of temporarily expanding the accepted excuses to vote absentee during last year's pandemic-era election.
Another measure on the ballot this fall could eliminate the voter registration deadline. Currently, the deadline to register to vote is 10 days before an election.
Other recent voting changes include:
- Voters now have more time to apply for absentee ballots. (Previously, voters could apply no more than 30 days before an election.) Mail ballot applications must be received by election officials at least 15 days before an election.
- Election officials must notify voters about a change in polling location by posting a sign at the old location with information about the relocation.
- For special, primary or runoff elections in which there are no eligible voters in the most populous municipality, election officials can relocate the voting site to the next largest jurisdiction with eligible voters. This creates an exception to the rule that the voting site must always be in the largest municipality.
As a swing state with a Democratic governor and Republican-majority Legislature, Pennsylvania has also been at the forefront of the voting reform debate. Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolfe vetoed GOP-backed legislation that would have overhauled the state's election system.
While no compromise has been reached yet on this year's proposed voting changes, the state did enact a series of expansive measures in 2019. Perhaps the biggest one was the adoption of no-excuse mail voting. (The state still has absentee voting, which does require an excuse.)
The state also established a permanent mail voting list, so voters can sign up once to receive mail ballots for any election that year, as well as mail ballot applications for every year following.
The recently enacted law also gives voters more time to request and submit a mail ballot. Vote-by-mail applications can now be sent starting 50 days before an election. The voter registration deadline was also extended to 15 days before an election, giving Pennsylvanians another two weeks to register.
The 2019 election package also authorized the governor to allocate a $90 million bond to counties to reimburse 60 percent of the costs to replace voting equipment. The new machines allowed Pennsylvania's elections to have a paper backup, which bolstered security.
Two years ago, Pennsylvania also eliminated straight-ticket voting, an option on the ballot that allows voters to check one box to vote for all candidates of a certain party. Proponents of straight-ticket voting say it cuts down on voting time and ensures down-ballot candidates aren't skipped over. But opponents say the voting method is antiquated and disincentivizes voters from researching candidates.
Additionally, lawmakers approved a handful of small adjustments to the election system last year, including:
- Allowing partisan poll watchers to be in the room while mail ballots are being processed and counted.
- Marking as void any ballots with text, marks or symbols indicating the elector's identity, party affiliation or candidate preference.
- Permitting voters who requested a mail ballot but wish to vote in person to return their ballot at a polling place, thereby "spoiling" it so they can cast a regular ballot in person.
- Lowering the penalty for attempting to vote more than once in an election from a first degree misdemeanor charge to a third degree. The fine for such a charge was lowered from $10,000 to $2,500 and the sentence from five to two years.
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While dysfunction is a common occurrence in Congress, this week finished with announcements on three bipartisan agreements.
Efforts to advance sweeping election reforms are stalled for now, but lawmakers have reached across the aisle to make progress on several other issues.
Here are three examples of recent bipartisan collaborations in Congress:
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced he and a bipartisan group of senators had reached an agreement on an infrastructure package. While this is welcome progress after weeks of negotiations, the legislation still faces a long and arduous road ahead.
The deal would invest $1.2 trillion in infrastructure over eight years — a slimmed down version of Biden's original $2 trillion plan. The new framework includes $109 billion for roads and bridges, $66 billion for rail, $65 billion for broadband, $55 billion for water infrastructure and $49 billion for public transit.
However, this infrastructure deal has one major string attached: a much more expensive investment in health care, child care, higher education and climate change programs. And it will be much harder to convince Republicans to support these progressive priorities.
"If this is the only thing that comes to me, I'm not signing it. It's in tandem," Biden said of the infrastructure deal.
Senate Democrats may be able to persuade 10 Republicans to join them on the infrastructure deal, but the other bill will likely only have a chance at passing through reconciliation.
Military sexual assault prevention
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have come together on two pieces of legislation aimed at combatting sexual assault and harassment in the military.
In the Senate, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa are leading the effort on a bill entitled the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. It would remove prosecutorial decisions for serious crimes out of the military chain of command and instead put it under the purview of appointed prosecutors. The measure would also bolster training and education on sexual assault prevention. In addition to the two co-sponsors, 44 Democrats and 20 Republicans are signed on to the bill.
In the House, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California and GOP Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio are collaborating on a bill named after Vanessa Guillén, a specialist in the U.S. Army who over a year ago was killed after reporting two instances of sexual assault at Fort Hood in Texas. Her death sparked calls for reform, like this legislation in Congress.
More than a year after the police killing of George Floyd, a trio of Black lawmakers have reached the framework of an agreement on a law enforcement reform bill.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass of California announced their agreement on Thursday, but the details of the plan are not yet available.
"After months of working in good faith, we have reached an agreement on a framework addressing the major issues for bipartisan police reform," the three lawmakers said in a joint statement. "There is still more work to be done on the final bill, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. Over the next few weeks we look forward to continuing our work toward getting a finalized proposal across the finish line."
This legislation could be a catalyst for police reform at the federal level after the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by House Democrats in March, stalled in the evenly split Senate.
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GOP Senators on Tuesday evening blocked their Democratic colleagues' attempt to advance the For the People Act, the sweeping election reform bill. This partisan gridlock in the evenly split Senate ensures a rocky path forward for any of the Democrats' legislative priorities.
However, there are still ways the federal government, namely the executive branch, can promote voter education and access to the ballot box. In March, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking agencies to evaluate how they can, within their purview of the law, encourage voter registration and participation.
Federal agencies are expected to present their strategic plans for promoting voting access in late September. And voting rights experts want to make sure they stick to this promise.
With fewer than 100 days left until the plans are due, the Campaign Legal Center sent letters to six federal agencies outlining recommendations and best practices for promoting voting access. The agencies include the Department of Education, Election Assistance Commission and General Services Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service.
Dana Paikowsky, one of the Campaign Legal Center experts who helped draft the letters, said her organization wanted to show how "the government could be creative and innovative in thinking about how to create more pathways to democracy, instead of fewer."
Each of these six agencies already serves populations of Americans that often face barriers to the ballot box — including people who are nonwhite, Native American, disabled, low-income, young or incarcerated — so they are uniquely positioned to engage with people about voting, Paikowsky said.
Here are some of the recommendations the Campaign Legal Center outlined:
Department of Education
- Encourage high schools and federally funded institutions of higher learning to provide voter registration, vote by mail and other voter education resources.
- Provide voter registration materials and vote by mail resources on campus at colleges, universities and community colleges.
- Provide resources to encourage students attending institutions of higher learning to volunteer as poll workers.
Election Assistance Commission and General Services Administration
Biden's executive order directed these agencies to modernize Vote.gov to improve user experiences. The Campaign Legal Center recommends that this website also include resources for people with past felony convictions to verify their voting eligibility. The democracy reform nonprofit offered its own tool, RestoreYourVote.org, as a reference.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Encourage state and local public housing authorities to make available voter registration forms and vote-by-mail ballot application forms in their offices and facilities where available and consistent with state law.
- Facilitate voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts conducted in partnership with state and local election officials, civic organizations, religious groups and other nonpartisan, nonprofit voting rights organizations
Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys
- Ensure that individuals who are prosecuted under federal law receive, at the time of plea negotiation, both written and oral explanations of the impact of any such pleas on their right to vote.
Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)
- Develop and publish jail voting policies and procedures for each prison and the agency at-large.
- Maintain centralized resources and best practice guidelines to assist with voter registration and voting at BOP facilities.
"Few people realize that, in every state in the United States, at least some segment of the incarcerated population retains their rights to vote," the Campaign Legal Center wrote in its letter to BOP. These individuals who are still eligible to vote are largely being held in jail pretrial or for minor misdemeanor offenses.
U.S. Marshals Service
- Require in new contracts that jails create policies and procedures that include information on voter registration and absentee voting, among other topics.
- Promulgate guidance and best practices to assist jails in facilitating voting and elections for incarcerated eligible voters.
"The federal government interacts with more eligible voters than any other entity in the United States, and so we wanted to emphasize the ways in which the federal government can leverage those interactions," said Valencia Richardson, one of the Campaign Legal Center's experts who helped draft the letters.
"We really provide ways the government can leverage the resources they already have and the programs they're already implementing to integrate voter-friendly and voter-accessible information and resources to eligible voters," Richardson said.
At a time when GOP-led states are enacting stricter voting rules to shore up election integrity and Congress is stalled by partisan dysfunction, the Campaign Legal Center experts said protecting the health of American democracy is of the utmost importance. The executive order, they said, provides a pathway for voters to both understand their rights and have the tools necessary to exercise those rights.
But Richardson and Paikowsky also emphasized that the strategic plans submitted by federal agencies in September, regardless of whether they include the Campaign Legal Center's recommendations, are just the first step in a long process to making democracy more inclusive and accessible.
"Part of what we need to see is long-term dedication and persistence," Paikowsky said. "You can't be a proponent of democracy by taking one step. […] You're coming back to the table every time to say, 'OK, what have we missed and how can we make voting easier, how can we make things more accessible, how can we make our democracy work better and include more people's voices?'"
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Having civil conversations about politics can feel like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be that way.
To foster better discussions the focus should be on finding common ground, rather than concentrating on divisions. That's the aim of the National Week of Conversation, which concluded on Sunday.
While the event series is now over, democracy reform organizations are already looking to the future on how to continue these types of conversations, both on a larger scale and in everyday life.
The fourth annual National Week of Conversation kicked off on June 12 with America Talks, an event in which people were matched in one-on-one virtual conversations or small group discussions with individuals of differing political views. This led into a week of events hosted by democracy reform organizations to spur further dialogue and build connections on important issues.
When this initiative first launched in 2017, the Listen First Project and its member coalition hosted hundreds of conversations. But now, that reach has soared to more than 30 million people, said Graham Bodie, COO of the Listen First Project and a member of the America Talks team.
Part of that boost in participation is thanks to America Talks and the National Week of Conversation's inaugural partnership with USA Today and its network of 250 local news outlets. Leading up to the event series, USA Today invited readers to learn more and take part in the conversations.
"By several measures I do think we succeeded in lifting the general spirit of the Listen First coalition and turning people's attention to a different way of being," Bodie said. "When we engage in those conversations we realize we have a lot more in common than the politicians would have us believe."
Moving forward, the Listen First coalition will be working on growing its base even more, especially when it comes to diversity. Overall, the participants in this year's events leaned white and progressive, Bodie said. For instance, during the one-on-one conversations for America Talks, there weren't enough Republicans to match up with Democrats.
John Gable, CEO of AllSides and a member of the America Talks team, said having political balance and diversity at these events and in conversations is critical to the outcome.
"Getting a bunch of progressives together at Berkeley to talk with each other does no one any good in the same way that getting a bunch of conservatives together in Texas doesn't," Gable said. "So it's not like the conversations weren't good if there's no political balance, they just didn't have any impact on the core mission we have."
Tying conversations to a specific issue area can help foster better diversity in a variety of ways, including political affiliation, Gable said. For future events, the Listen First coalition is looking to host discussions about current hot-button topics and issues in the news.
To have more productive conversations in everyday life, both Gable and Bodie agree that the focus should not be on what the other person thinks, but why they think that way.
"If you take the point of view of being truly curious about why they feel a certain way — not just what they feel — and ask questions to really understand, that completely changes the entire conversation," Gable said. "And usually if one person does it, the other person follows."
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