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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This is the 11th installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Bob LaRocca, executive director of the Voter Protection Corps, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. His organization uses data-driven solutions to battle voter suppression and disenfranchisement. LaRocca's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
American voters, election officials and election workers achieved a remarkable feat in 2020: holding a presidential election during a once-in-a-century pandemic and still achieving the highest turnout in history. Some states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, adopted significant voting expansions on a temporary basis to address the challenges Covid-19 presented. Others like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia implemented major permanent advances in voting rights for the first time. The Voter Protection Corps was proud to work with city, state and local officials to help ensure that every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted. The Voter Protection Corps released a national action plan to protect in-person voting, recruited poll workers across the county, and ensured students in New Hampshire had the resources they needed to vote. We also partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create a data tool to identify counties at risk for voting challenges and the possibility of voter disenfranchisement due to vast poll worker recruitment shortfalls.
And your biggest setback?
Even though we made progress in 2020, we faced constant threats to safely casting a ballot, a commander-in-chief who spread disinformation and encouraged voter suppression at every turn, and an attack on our Capitol by white supremacists trying to overturn the election. And while we did everything in our power to ensure every legitimate voter was able to register, vote and have their vote counted, there is no doubt that these suppressive measures affected the behavior of many voters. Our electoral system was broken long before Trump and his enablers gained power.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
It's so important to be patient with the process during an election, and especially on Election Day. Anyone who has volunteered or worked in an election knows how difficult it is to wait for the results, but given the unique circumstances of 2020, this feeling was exacerbated among our staff. We constantly had to remind ourselves, and everyone in our communities: Every vote must be counted and we won't know the winner of the presidential election on election night. That is okay. Many states have antiquated systems of waiting to count mail-in ballots and, as a result, those ballots took a few days to process. It was more critical in 2020 to remind ourselves, our friends and our families to be patient through this process.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
Even though we made tremendous progress in 2020, election administration in the United States is a patchwork, with differing state laws, thousands of local election jurisdictions nationwide, countless outdated systems and policies, and a history of unequal access that dates back to the founding. We have a long way to go to ensure every eligible voter can register, vote and have their vote counted.
Thankfully, we know how to get there. This year, the Voter Protection Corps will focus our efforts on pushing state and local leaders to implement important reforms outlined in our Democracy Benchmark. The report provides specific recommendations, including:
- Voter registration: Every state must offer same-day registration, ensure online voter registration is accessible and entirely online for all eligible voters, adopt automatic voter registration, relax restrictions on third-party voter registration, allow teenagers to pre-register, and end the racist practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions.
- Voting in person: Every state must provide access to at least 15 days of early voting with uniform hours that include mornings, nights and weekends; allow voters to vote at any Election Day voter center in their local election jurisdiction rather than requiring voters to use an assigned polling place; abolish or relax discriminatory and unnecessary voter identification requirements; reduce the risk of frivolous and intimidating voter challenges; and minimize law enforcement presence at voting sites.
- Vote by mail: Every state must adopt no-excuse voting by mail, allow voters to request mail ballots online, provide multiple options for returning mail ballots (including by mail, at a dropbox or voting site, and allowing a person the voter trusts to return the ballot for them), provide prepaid postage, ensure all mail ballots received within a week of Election Day are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, prevent local election offices from rejecting mail ballots unnecessarily, and provide voters the opportunity to fix problems that cause their mail ballots to be rejected.
- Election administration capacity: Every state must assume responsibility for ensuring that local election offices have the funding and flexibility they need for adequate capacity during election season. State election offices should also have the funding, infrastructure and mandate to ensure that every eligible voter is able to vote conveniently, and that their votes are counted.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
State and local leaders carry great responsibility for righting many of the wrongs we saw in 2020, and many of the states where reform is needed most continue to be led by forces that oppose increased access. Still, it is also essential that the Biden administration and Congress prioritize voting rights at the federal level. We encourage Congress to quickly pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Act, among other measures.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
Those responsible for perpetuating disinformation and attempting to overthrow our democracy in the horrific attack at the Capitol — including President Donald Trump and Republican members of Congress — must be held accountable. Policymakers must not use lies about the integrity of our election to justify voter suppression. State legislatures across the country are seeking to curtail voting opportunities that have been proven to expand access to the ballot — such as early and mail-in voting -— and erect other barriers that make it harder for people to vote. The challenges before us are daunting. We must ensure that efforts to advance voting rights don't dissipate as we move away from the election. The Voter Protection Corps will continue to fight any efforts to suppress legitimate votes and use data to support state and local leaders as they continue to ensure that every American has safe, convenient, and equal access to their most fundamental right.
Finish the sentence. In two years, American democracy will ...
be innovative, efficient and inclusive.
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Efforts to make voting more complicated have lurched forward this week in the Republican-run legislatures of three additional major partisan battlegrounds.
The Arizona House voted Tuesday to purge inconsistent voters from the roster of people who are sent a mail-in ballot before every election. Hours later in Florida, a Senate committee advanced a package of fresh restrictions on voting. And GOP powers in Ohio put the finishing touches on their own multifaceted plan to make access to the ballot box more difficult.
Business executives have joined Democrats and civil rights advocates to excoriate all those efforts as aiming to disenfranchise voters of color — an argument that has not stopped fresh curbs from being enacted this year, in the name of bolstered election security, in purple states from Georgia to Iowa and most recently Montana.
These are the details of the developments in the states with the freshest legislative activity:
The measure is now one roll call, in the GOP-run Senate, away from the desk of Republican Gov. Steve Ducey.
The vote in the House was 31-29 along party lines, promoted mainly by Republicans who have continued to push the evidence-free allegation that fraud cost former President Donald Trump the state's 11 electoral votes last year.
Under their bill, people who don't return any ballot for any election for four years would be dropped from the roster of voters — which now includes three-quarters of Arizonans — who receive vote-by-mail packets before each election. (They would first get a warning they have 90 days to ask to stay on the list.)
About 200,000 voters, or one in five, sat out the primary and general elections in both 2018 and 2020 and would be subject to the purge. Republicans say the measure is justified to keep not-completed ballots out of the wrong hands. Democrats say the result would be confusion and ultimately suppression — especially of Latinos, Native Americans, young people and partian independents.
Greater Phoenix Leadership, a business group, and more than 50 company executives including the owner of the Arizona Cardinals have come out against the bill and two others that have not advanced as far in the Legislature, one to shrink the period for mail-in voting and the other to stiffen proof-of-identification requirements for those using the forms.
"These measures seek to disenfranchise voters. They are 'solutions' in search of a problem. They are attempts at voter suppression cloaked as reform — plain and simple," they said in an open letter last week, warning that passage could taint the state's reputation as a good place to live and work.
President Biden was the first Democrat to carry the state in six elections, albeit by just 10,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast, and after the November election Arizona has two Democratic senators for the first time since 1968.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill, 10-7. One Republican joined every Democrat in opposing it, despite GOP sponsors abandoning some of the more aggressive ideas in their original package — including intensified signature-matching rules for voters and an outright ban on drop boxes.
Instead, the bill would make drop boxes available only during early voting hours, not around the clock. It also would bar political operations from delivering water to voters within 150 feet of a polling place, add more ID requirements to vote-by-mail applications, end the ability of voters to be on a permanent roll to receive an absentee ballot for each election, limit third-party collections of ballots and boost the powers of partisan observers during vote tabulation.
As in other states, the debate was between Republicans who said they wanted to prevent cheating that otherwise "could happen," and Democrats who said that warding off a hypothetical was much less of a problem than suppressing the vote.
As approved, the measure is quite similar to a bill awaiting a vote in the Republican-majority House. But unless identical language wins passage in both chambers by the end of next week, when the Legislature adjourns, no voting bill will be presented to GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis this year. Florida has for a decade been considered the biggest purple state, but Republicans have won every topflight statewide contest in the past five years.
Republican legislators and GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose say they are close to unveiling an election law overhaul proposal they believe can win bipartisan backing.
But a draft of the legislation that circulated last week prompted state House Democtatic Leader Emilia Sykes to send out a fundraising email describing the bill as "so draconian that the Georgia law looks mild in comparison."
That draft would ban ballot drop boxes, require two forms of ID to vote early or by mail, and eliminate early-in person balloting the Monday before the election. But negotiators say they are also considering a collection of proposals to ease voting, including a new online system and a later deadline to apply for an absentee ballot.
One draft version would prohibit the state from paying the postage on returned absentee ballots. Another would mandate postage-paid envelopes with all ballot request forms and ballots.
Unlike many other states, the Ohio Legislature meets all year — so there is plenty of time to alter rules ahead of the next election, when the marquee race in Ohio will be for an open, now-Republcian-held Senate seat. Trump secured its 18 electoral votes twice, meaning last year was the first time since 1860 that Ohio did not vote for the presidential victor.
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The second-guessing has not ended about the integrity of the vote in Wisconsin, where President Biden secured one of his narrowest victories last fall.
Republicans in charge at the state capital ordered the Legislature's auditing arm on Thursday to begin a comprehensive, monthslong review of almost the entire election system.
Democrats voted against the review as totally unnecessary, noting how Donald Trump's loss of the state — albeit by fewer than 21,000 votes out of 3.2 million cast — had been affirmed after a partial recount and following the flat-out rejection of an array of lawsuits alleging wrongdoing from Trump and his allies.
Rep. Samantha Kerkman, the GOP chairwoman of the panel that controls the auditors, said their work was needed to make sure the state's deeply divided electorate gains confidence in the fairness of elections, "the cornerstone of our government," before the 2022 midterm and gubernatorial contests.
"Divisions are more pronounced now than ever and my fear is — and I hope it's just a fear — that this audit will be a vehicle for more distrust and more misinformation," countered Democratic Sen. Melissa Agard.
State Auditor Joe Chrisman was ordered to examine issues including how the bipartisan Elections Commission and municipal clerks maintain the voter rolls, how they handle complaints, compliance with rules for assisting voters complete vote-by-mail forms, the security of voting equipment, the use of drop boxes, and whether there has been abuse of the exceptions for the elderly and disabled to obtain absentee ballots without showing identification,
Almost all these matters were raised in the barrage of election lawsuits that have flooded Wisconsin in the past year.
The state Supreme Court ruled against Trump in a series of 4-3 decisions that his side's suits lacked merit or evidence or were filed too late. But the high court is still considering a lawsuit that predated the election, filed by conservatives who want to make the Elections Commission move faster to remove people from the rolls after notifying them it believes they have moved or died. An appeals court last year found the commission has used a proper timetable for such purges.
No significant problems were found with the state's voting machines after audits and recounts in both 2016 and last fall. Both times, Wisconsin had the third-closest presidential margin in the nation. Trump carried its 10 electoral votes by a single point, or 27,000 votes, the first time. Last year, the margins were closer than Wisconsin's six-tenths of a point only in Arizona and Georgia, where Biden also prevailed.
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