Mail and early voting practices were expanded and widely used during the 2020 election, to mitigate exposure to Covid-19, and since then they've been a main focus of states' election overhauls. A recent report provides a comprehensive look at the ways these voting methods have changed.
On Wednesday, the Campaign Legal Center released a 40-page report analyzing the modifications to vote-by-mail and early voting practices states have made so far this year. The report focuses on the 39 states that had completed their legislative sessions by the end of June.
The nonpartisan nonprofit graded each state based on its existing voting laws and the changes it made this year, if any, and then grouped states into three categories: least restrictive, restrictive and most restrictive. The scorecard is meant to show what provisions states may have that promote voting access, but it is not intended to be reflective of states' election systems overall.
The Campaign Legal Center graded states based on whether they offered 10 voting practices:
- No-excuse absentee voting.
- A permanent mail voting list.
- Permission for election officials to send voters unsolicited mail ballot applications.
- A uniform mail ballot notice and cure process.
- No requirement for a state-issued driver license or ID to vote by mail.
- Acceptance of mail ballots postmarked on or before Election Day and received up to 10 days after Election Day.
- At least two weeks of early in-person voting.
- Online mail ballot tracking.
- Ballot drop boxes.
- Allowance for voters to cast ballots by mail without notary or enhanced witness requirements.
Just two states — Illinois and Washington — checked all 10 boxes. Washington already employed all 10 practices, whereas Illinois adopted several of them this year. Conversely, Alabama received the worst grade out of the 39 states, notching just two checkmarks.
Most states (15) fell into the middle, "restrictive" category, meaning they checked six or seven boxes. Thirteen states offered eight or more of these voting practices and were deemed "least restrictive," while 11 states had five or less and were labeled "most restrictive."
This legislative session, nine states made changes to their voting rules in ways that met CLC's expectations, which earned them a higher score in the report: Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Utah. However, seven states made changes downgrading their scores: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Louisiana.
The Campaign Legal Center notes that it judged states by the existence of certain vote-by-mail and early voting policies, but not by the efficacy of those policies. Even if the policy looks good on paper, it could still result in substantial burdens on certain groups voters.
"Voters of color across the country fall victim to laws of general applicability that do not address the unique burdens they face, such as limited mailing access and distant — or nonexistent — early voting locations in their communities," the report says. "Many of these states still have much work to do to promote the freedom to vote for all voters despite their relatively high grades."
For instance, many of the states that received high grades for their expansive vote-by-mail policies have large Native American populations who lack adequate access to mailboxes, post offices, mailing addresses and transportation.
And in the places where mail voting rules were tightened, Black voters were disproportionately impacted. Three states with some of the largest Black populations in the country rolled back their vote-by-mail policies: Alabama (28 percent Black), Georgia (33 percent Black) and Louisiana (33 percent Black).
Lack of voter education about recent voting changes is also a significant problem, said Aklima Khondoker, chief legal officer at the New Georgia Project, which partnered with the Campaign Legal Center on this report.
"On a very real level in the state of Georgia we have widespread voter confusion, not only to our voters but our boards of elections and the way that they conduct their elections," Khondoker said. "We have our underserved and underseen communities — our youth voters, our disabled voters — who now have additional worry when it comes to casting their ballots because there is no comprehensive voter education available to them."
Many of these issues, the report notes, would be ameliorated by federal legislation, namely the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Nearly every state included in the report would have laws preempted by the sweeping election reform provisions included in the For the People Act. And 11 states would likely be subject to preclearance — meaning their election laws would need advance approval from the Justice Department — if the VRAA was enacted.
While House Democrats passed the For the People Act in March, its progress has stalled in the Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said late Tuesday that a revised version of the legislation would be voted on in mid-September, when the Senate returns from recess. However, it's likely to still face opposition from the GOP, which can block the bill through a filibuster. And the VRAA has yet to be introduced in this Congress, although Democrats have signaled it is a priority.
"Federal intervention would have succeeded in preventing dozens of states from passing laws this year that severely curtail millions of Americans' freedom to vote. Voting rights legislation must be passed urgently by Congress when they return from recess before more damage is done," said Caleb Jackson, legal counsel for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center and a co-author of the report. "Our democracy works best when all voters are able to exercise the freedom to vote in safe and accessible elections."
Beyond congressional action, there are still ways the federal government can promote voting access. In March, President Biden issued an executive order asking agencies to evaluate how they can, within their purview of the law, encourage voter registration and participation. As the deadline for agencies to submit their plans approaches, the CLC has provided guidance on best practices for promoting voter access.