McDonald is an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and runs the U.S. Elections Project, which maintained a comprehensive database on 2020 voting methods and turnout in every state.
As the coronavirus pandemic raged across the country last year, several states worked diligently to make it easier for voters to cast mail ballots and to provide more access for in-person voters. And after the dust of the general election settled, we began to see major success stories — including the highest voter turnout rate for a general election in a century, with turnout increases in every state.
Now is not the time to pump the brakes on democracy.
Despite the success of last year's election — a monumental feat coordinated by election officials across the country — politicians in 30 states are pushing more than 150 bills to undo, slow down or reverse some of the very policies that secured a larger and more engaged voter base in 2020 and brought us closer to the American promise of a more inclusive democracy.
This is especially concerning because hidden in the administrative success of last year's general election is this fact: Despite the historic turnout nationwide, our progress as a democracy is based primarily on state-level policies, which still vary widely and have the biggest impact on how people actually vote.
This point is clearly illustrated in the 2020 edition of "America Goes to the Polls." Out this month, it's the seventh biennial state-by-state report on voter turnout and turnout changes from the previous comparable federal election. It's a joint production of the U.S. Elections Project and Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan organization that works to help other nonprofits promote active civic participation and democracy.
The report gets under the hood of the last presidential election, looking at the detailed data to examine which policies had the biggest impact on voter participation.
One policy we examined was voting by mail. Overall, the states with the highest usage of mail voting saw turnout increase the most — as much as 9 percentage points. In the report's ranking of all 50 states (plus D.C.) by turnout, half of the top 10 states proactively mailed ballots directly to all registered voters. Conversely, eight of the bottom 10 required voters to overcome significant barriers to mail voting, such as excuse requirements or notary signatures, reducing how many voters could use the policy.
And while such states as Hawaii, New Jersey, and Montana saw impressive voter turnout increases (14 points, 10 points, and 9 points, respectively) after expanding mail voting access, bills to reduce access and eligibility have already been introduced in those same states.
Another successful policy was same-day registration, also known as Election Day registration, which allowed eligible citizens to both get on the rolls and cast their ballots on Nov. 3 last year — overcoming the nearly four-week deadline many states employ.
Eight of the top 10 states for turnout had implemented the policy. On average, the same-day registration states had a 5 percentage point turnout advantage over states without it. This system has now been adopted by 23 states, roughly half the country — including eight that have implemented it since 2016.
However, legislatures in some of the states that saw turnout increase because of same-day registration are now pushing bills to eliminate the policy. And at least three others are looking to restrict or eliminate automatic voter registration — a policy that encourages registration whenever citizens do business with their departments of motor vehicles or other state government agencies.
By many measures, 2020 was a tough year on everyone — requiring massive, uncomfortable upheavals to our norms that most are ready to leave behind. However, it was an exemplary year for voting policy advances. It is a year we should consider the "new normal" for civic engagement, not just a consequence of extraordinary times.
It's important to recognize that, in the larger picture, our country continues to strive towards greater representation by increasing access to the levers of democracy to those routinely marginalized. But that progress is not guaranteed and cannot be sustained without real effort and often sacrifice.
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Complex Republican maneuvering over the future of election rules and voting rights in Georgia, newly one of the nation's premier battlegrounds, is headed to another level this week.
The first vote could come as soon as Tuesday, on an expansive GOP package designed to make it much harder to cast a ballot — mainly by ending early voting the Sunday before Election Day, limiting drop boxes and requiring proof of identification along with every absentee ballot application.
But while a state House committee prepared to advance the bill along party lines, the leaders of the Republican-run General Assembly signaled their demand for a more modest approach, fearing that making it too difficult to vote would backfire by generating a huge Democratic response ahead of highly competitive elections for governor and senator next year.
One Georgia Republican who was just ousted from the Senate, Kelly Loeffler, decided to take a somewhat different approach Monday by launching a group that will focus on boosting conservative turnout in 2022 along with promoting enhanced "election integrity." The financial services executive said she would spend more than $1 million standing up Greater Georgia, which she described as modeled after — and a counterweight on — Fair Fight Action, which Stacey Abrams started days after her narrow 2018 defeat for governor.
"By registering new voters, broadening our outreach, and rebuilding trust in our election process, we can create better outcomes, strengthen our democracy and lift up more voices in our state," Loeffler said.
She also signaled she may use the new group to help her mount a Senate comeback run next year. The other GOP senator ousted in January, David Perdue, said Tuesday he would not be doing likewise.
Loeffler — who planned to support Donald Trump's challenge to the Electoral College count on Jan. 6 but changed her mind after the insurrection — did not specify what she meant by Greater Georgia pushing "election transparency and uniformity" reforms, beyond saying she supports toughening ID requirements for those wanting to vote by mail. And she asserted that some of the efforts to ease access to the polls last year had driven down public confidence in election integrity.
Abrams, who is likely to be the Democratic candidate for governor again next year, derided the new effort. "It's deeply disheartening that a former U.S. senator would spend her time and her resources to publicly engage in the type of conspiracy theories that say that only certain Americans should be valued," she said.
The sweeping GOP legislation, on course to get to the floor of the House by the end of the week, survived a withering day of criticism Monday from voting rights advocates — who labeled it as voter suppression, particularly of the Black electorate, in the guise of tackling an election security problem that does not exist.
After Joe Biden became the first Democrat since 1992 to carry the state, although by a scant 12,000 votes, Donald Trump focused his campaign of lies about election fraud on Georgia more than any other place. Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both fellow Republicans, said unequivocally that three different tallies revealed no suggestion of widespread cheating. The district attorney in Atlanta is now investigating Trump's efforts to subvert the state's result.
Still, many of Trump's allies at the state capital continue to profess skepticism about Georgia's voting systems — particularly about the integrity of absentee voting. Georgians who voted by mail shattered records because of the pandemic and accounted for more than a quarter of all ballots cast for president in November and almost a quarter cast in the twin Senate runoffs in January, won by Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to give Georgia two Democratic senators for the first time in 15 years.
These Republicans maintain the rules for obtaining and returning envelopes made it too easy for illegitimate votes to get cast. (To be sure, none of those GOP lawmakers have questioned the results of their own races.)
Their bill would require a driver's license number, state ID number or copy of a photo ID with each vote-by-mail application. It would cut off those submissions 11 days before each election. And it would prohibit the use of drop boxes excerpt inside early-voting locations.
Perhaps the most contentious proposal, though, is to end early voting on Sunday, which would smother the longstanding tradition of "souls to the polls," people in Black neighborhoods heading out to vote after church the weekend before the election.
The fate of the package is not as clear as it might at first appear, because the top two Republican legislative leaders have decided sweeping new voting restrictions would not be good politics. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, have both announced they will not support any bill that curtails eligibility to vote by mail. Duncan has also taken committee chairmanships away from two Republicans who planned to push sharp restrictions in the Senate, making it tougher to get such bills through that chamber.
Instead, three modest bills were approved Monday by Senate committees. One would compel local officials to continue tabulating ballots until their work is done -- not take any breaks on election night, which happened in several major urban and suburban counties in November and gave rise to a host of conspiracy theories. Another would allow for a special kind of grand jury to investigate election crimes. A third would limit the use of the sorts of mobile polling stations that helped drive up turnout in Atlanta last fall.
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Eckam is a Texas software developer, graphic designer and the author of "Beyond Two Parties: Why America Needs a Multiparty System and How We Can Have It" (self-published, 2019).
It's great that Americans are considering a variety of ideas for reforming our democracy. But one idea needs to be clarified — that the "50 percent plus one" rule, or majority requirement for winning an election, is racist and should be abolished.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, has labeled this requirement among the "most pernicious devices" developed in the South to "disenfranchise Black voters, purge Black elected officials and relegate Black people to second-class citizenship."
Clyburn's concern is that when a Black candidate gets a plurality in the first round of an election where a majority is required to win, white voters can rally around the white candidate in the runoff and deny Black voters representation. If Georgia didn't have runoffs — that is, if it accepted a plurality for victory — then Raphael Warnock would have won his Senate seat in November without needing to compete again in January.
However, if plurality-win had been the system in place, we wouldn't have seen a robust field of eight Democrats and six Republicans competing for that same Senate seat.
And it isn't only Black voters who can carry their candidate to victory by unifying against a divided field in a plurality contest. White voters, or indeed any unified voting bloc, can do the same.
It's true the history of runoffs in Georgia is steeped in racism. They were instituted in the 1960s by racist legislators who saw them as a way to block minority representation.
Runoffs let voters decide both rounds of an election. Previously, in the event of no majority in the first round, the final say was often given to an elite body such as a legislative assembly. For example, the House had the task of picking the president in 1800 and 1824, when no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College.
Alexander Hamilton explained the need for such a "contingency election" in Federalist 68 by calling it "unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive."
The idea goes back even further. The Golden Bull of 1356 instituted a majority requirement in the choice of a new Holy Roman Emperor by a small group of "prince electors." Clearly, this principle has an appeal of long standing. But why?
To answer that, it'll help to understand what sort of "safety" Hamilton had in mind.
Imagine a plurality election between Able, Baker and Charlie. Suppose each gets about a third of the votes but Charlie gets a few more and so he wins. Then suppose the thing that supporters of Able and Baker agree on more than anything else is their hatred of Charlie.
For Charlie to end up representing such an electorate is a misfire of representative democracy. If Baker had stayed out of the race then Able would have won easily, and vice versa. In other words, plurality voting has enabled a coordination failure, yielding an unrepresentative outcome.
Surely, what Hamilton meant by "safety" is this: ensuring that one person elected to represent a group of people is not opposed by a majority of those people.
Note that "majority" doesn't mean a majority race in this contest; it means a group of people who vote together on a political question. In general, such a group will include people of diverse racial backgrounds.
To be sure, runoffs do have problems, starting with turnout. Many will find it impossible, for work or logistical reasons, to get to the polls a second time for the same election. (Ranked-choice voting is one potential solution to this problem.) The way elections are administered can also be unfair and discriminatory. And, there is a long, ugly and sadly continuing history of voter suppression that needs fixing.
Clyburn is right that our electoral systems are set up badly and don't serve the interest of minority representation. But he misdiagnoses the problem in blaming the 50 percent plus one requirement.
The real problem? We have single-winner elections where we should be electing multiple winners.
Unlike elections for singular offices like mayor or governor, filling seats in a legislative body does not require a "winner take all" approach. We can assign several members to represent each district and use a proportional election method to give fair representation to both majorities and minorities. (One proven example is the "single transferable vote" method.) There is also legislation that would remake the U.S. House of Representatives this way.
Proportional representation means more accurate representation. A representative assembly, John Adams wrote in 1776, "should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. That it may be the interest of this Assembly to do strict justice at all times, it should be an equal representation, or in other words equal interest among the people should have equal interest in it."
It's hard to paint an accurate portrait of ourselves if we start by dividing into single-member districts.
Clyburn supports proportional representation. It seems like Adams would have, too.
Electing both of a state's senators at the same time presents a rare opportunity to use a proportional method of election to that body — one that Georgia could have chosen to take this month. Electing one Democrat and one Republican would have meant a fairer, more exact reflection of the state's electorate.
Citizens of all persuasions should recognize the value of more fairness in our electoral systems. It needn't be a partisan issue. (And, at the city level, Republicans might gain a lot from proportionality.)
Yes, we can do much better than single-seat legislative runoff elections. We should institute proportionality wherever we can. But when we're electing someone to a singular office, we need the majority requirement to help overcome vote-splitting and produce greater legitimacy for the winner. We should not cast aside this essential principle.
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LaRoque volunteers for the Election Reformers Network, a group of international election specialists who promote electoral improvements in the United States. A past election observer in 10 foreign countries, she was on an international team that monitored the November presidential election.
With Joe Biden now inaugurated and at work in the Oval Office, we can finally say with absolute certainty that the 2020 election is — thankfully — over.
As that dust settles and we begin to look to future elections, we must decide as a country whether to continue the unprecedented degree of early and absentee voting measures put in place as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, this issue is already being taken up by state election officials across the country.
Here's why these measures should continue.
First, turnout increased last year despite a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Nearly 160 million people voted, more than in any other election in the past 120 years, and a staggering 101 million of those ballots were cast early or absentee. This equates to 66.6 percent turnout, or precisely two-thirds of the voting eligible population. By comparison, 2016 turnout was only 60.1 percent.
We should be extremely proud of this turnout. The coronavirus pandemic could have easily dampened voter participation, but instead we saw a marked increase. To be sure, the highly contested nature of the presidential election fueled voter participation. But a case can also be made for the many measures states took this year to expand early and mail-in voting in response to limit long lines on an Election Day in the middle of the Covid-19 scourge.
Second, voters appear to like options.
This year, 39 states and the District of Columbia offered in-person early voting, for periods ranging from three to 45 days before Election Day and averaging 19 days. Some states, like Texas, increased the length of this early voting period specifically because of Covid-19. We also saw around half these states allow early voting on Saturday and a handful even opened polling places on Sunday.
The option to vote on weekends is undoubtedly welcome to the many who have struggled to vote in person on a Tuesday while balancing work or school schedules. For some perspective, most elections around the world are held on weekends to maximize the ability of voters to participate. (The United States and other countries that started as British colonies tend to be the exception and to hold elections on weekdays.)
This year all 50 states also provided voters the option to cast an absentee ballot, mostly by request, and 38 of them did not require an excuse for voting by mail. Only Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas required a specific reason for wanting to vote absentee. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington already planned to conduct their elections entirely by postal ballot, and 10 other states plus D.C. sent ballots automatically to all registered voters.
These accommodations paid off in voter participation in an unprecedented way. More votes were cast early or absentee than the total turnout four years before in a handful of states — and that number topped 90 percent in such critical swing states as Georgia, Florida and Arizona. Although election observers and media reports detailed long lines in some places during early voting, the greater dispersal of voting before Nov. 3 decreased the likelihood for technical glitches and hours-long queues on Election Day itself.
This early voting momentum also applies to young voters, a group that has historically participated the least in our elections. Somewhere between 53 and 56 percent of people younger than 30 voted — compared with 45 to 48 percent four years before. Moreover, a staggering 70 percent of these votes were cast early or absentee this time. In battlegrounds Texas and Florida, the total early youth vote topped the total youth vote in 2016. This increased turnout had a decisive effect on close races in several states.
Unfortunately, for many states, expanded early and absentee voting measures were temporary changes made to keep turnout strong but voters safe due to Covid-19. Now states should look to make them permanent. While there are positive signs from Democratic and Republican states alike, public opinion will be key to institutionalizing these measures.
To be sure, there are logistical and security matters to think through: postmark deadlines for mailed ballots, voter verification requirements for absentee voters and the timetables for processing and tabulating the early or absentee vote.
We should commit ourselves, however, to thinking these questions through in an effort to sustain or even increase 2020's record turnout. We can start with expanded early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, two measures that clearly withstood the stress test of the pandemic. Making such measures permanent, in addition to exploring same-day registration and automatic voter registration at the age of 18, will further improve turnout.
But that's not enough. Making voting easier will not necessarily lead to higher voter participation, research has shown. To be really effective it must be paired with improved voter education and outreach.
At the end of the day, our democracy is built on participation. Voting should be as convenient and secure as possible. Republicans and Democrats both benefited from increased turnout in 2020. If we can administer safe and secure elections during a pandemic, with multiple options for voters to participate, we can build upon this progress before future elections.
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