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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More than halfway into the year, and with most state legislative sessions concluded, the full scope of voting changes spurred by the 2020 election is coming into view.
As of last week, 18 states have enacted 30 laws that limit voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School that has been tracking state voting legislation. At the same time, 25 states have signed into law 54 measures that expand access to the ballot box.
And more voting changes are sure to come. Thirteen state legislatures are still in session, and additional states, like Texas, may convene for special sessions.
Since the start of the year, more than 400 bills tightening voting rules have been introduced across nearly every state. This wave of restrictions is "the most aggressive" the Brennan Center has seen in more than a decade of tracking such laws. And the proposed changes are in large part motivated by false claims of voter fraud in last year's election.
Arkansas and Montana, with four new laws each, are tied for enacting the most voting restrictions this year. Arizona is a close second with three new laws.
Most of the restrictive voting measures approved this year focus on rolling back mail voting access by limiting the availability of drop boxes, shortening the time voters have to apply for an absentee ballot and limiting who can return another voter's mailed ballot. Other laws impose new identification requirements and increase maintenance of voter rolls, which could lead to the unintended removal of eligible voters.
In half the states where voting easements have been approved, those laws have mostly been focused on expanding access to early in-person and mail voting, as well as voter registration. A handful of states have also taken steps to restore voting rights to people with past felony convictions.
"Many of the states in which voting is already comparatively more accessible are the same as those enacting policies to further strengthen voting access, deepening a national divide such that the promise of the right to vote depends increasingly on where Americans happen to live," the Brennan Center wrote in its report.
Once again, the good-government organization urged Congress to take action to mitigate these voting restrictions by passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Since House Democrats passed the For the People Act in March, the sweeping democracy reform legislation has been stuck in the evenly split Senate with no clear path forward. The VRAA has yet to be introduced in this Congress.
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Texas is once again in the voting rights spotlight after GOP lawmakers this weekend revived a bill to tighten the state's election rules.
In May, Democratic lawmakers blocked the first round of voting restrictions by staging a dramatic walkout. But now in the special session, Republicans are getting a second chance to advance their legislative priorities.
And while much of the attention is on Texas, several voting restrictions have gained traction under the radar in 13 other states. RepresentUs, a prominent democracy reform advocacy group, released a report last week highlighting these lesser-known measures that impact more than 35 million voters overall.
So far this year 35 anti-voter bills have been enacted across 18 states, according to the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab. In its report, RepresentUs identified 27 of them as "especially worrying and underpublicized cases."
Here are some of the recently enacted voting changes you may have missed:
Arkansas and Iowa have limited in-person early voting options. Voting by mail and access to ballot drop boxes have also been restricted in five states: Arkansa, Idaho, Iowa, Montana and Wyoming.
Additionally, a handful of states have adopted tougher rules for voter identification, including requiring an affidavit to cast a provisional ballot (Arkansas) and mandating photo ID at the polls (Montana and Wyoming).
Three states — Arizona, Kansas and Kentucky — have all reduced the power the secretary of state has over elections. For instance, a new law in Arizona gives the attorney general the authority to defend state election laws, rather than the secretary of state.
Seven states have rolled back or completely prohibited local and state election officials from using private money for election administration. This came in response to the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded by Mark Zuckerberg, providing $350 million in grants for last year's elections. Banning such funds could make paying for elections difficult when help from the federal government is lacking.
Several states have also made changes to the voter registration process. Arizona and Iowa have ramped up their voter roll maintenance, which could inadvertently disqualify eligible voters. Iowa also cut its registration period by four days. Montana will no longer allow residents to register and vote on Election Day. And voters in Utah will now have less time to update their party affiliation before a primary election.
More voting changes are sure to come, though, as legislative sessions, regular and special, are still ongoing in 17 states and Washington, D.C.
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Since last year's election, state legislatures have been advancing changes to voting and election rules along one of two divergent paths. Democrats are seeking expansions, like no-excuse absentee voting, while Republicans are pushing for increased security measures, like voter ID requirements.
In much of the country, one side can easily have its way without even attempting to reach across the aisle because one party controls both the legislature and the governorship. And in the 12 states with divided governments, too often there is contention rather than compromise.
Some purple states, like Kentucky and Vermont, have leaned into compromise and enacted bipartisan election reforms. But in other states, like Pennsylvania, partisan infighting is overriding any potential for collaboration.
Last week, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania passed a sweeping election overhaul through both legislative chambers. The measure includes provisions that have bipartisan support, such as expanded in-person early voting. But it would also mandate some form of voter ID and set tighter deadlines for absentee voting, which Democrats say would be burdensome for voters.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe has promised to veto the bill, so Republicans are now pivoting to a new plan. They want to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, asking voters whether an ID should be required to cast a ballot.
A June poll conducted by Franklin and Marshall College found that nearly three-quarters of Pennsylvanians favored a photo ID requirement at the polls. Republicans were overwhelmingly in favor of this reform (95 percent). A majority of independents were also supportive (77 percent). But most Democrats don't want a photo ID requirement; only 47 percent of them were in favor. The survey of 444 registered Pennsylvania voters was conducted June 7-13. The margin of error was 6.4 percentage points.
Most states with voter ID laws have policies in place to ensure election integrity while still giving voters flexibility, Liz Avore, vice president of law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab, wrote in a recent post about a proposed national voter ID law.
If Congress were to draft such a measure, it should take two things into consideration, she said. First, voters should be allowed to prove their identity through a variety of documents, such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. And secondly, election officials need to be able to verify a person's identity in case they do not have the necessary documents with them when trying to vote. Verification can be done using information such as date of birth, mother's maiden name or the last four digits of their Social Security number.
While efforts to reform voting rules in many states and Congress have stalled due to partisan disagreements, there are some states where collaborative progress is being made.
In April, Kentucky made early in-person voting a permanent fixture in its elections, after temporarily allowing it in 2020. The measure passed with near unanimous bipartisan support in the GOP-majority General Assembly before being signed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
Earlier this month, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed into law a measure that mandates automatically sending every registered voter an absentee ballot for statewide general elections. The legislation garnered bipartisan approval in the General Assembly.
Also this month, Maine lawmakers advanced a bill that would allow voters not registered with a major party to cast a ballot in a primary election.
These advancements, in addition to being bipartisan, were also innovative in ways that were best for each state and its election system, said Audrey Kline, national policy director at the National Vote at Home Institute.
"There are definitely ways that we're seeing election policy headed in opposite directions, but there are definitely these other areas ... that really do have a lot of bipartisan agreement and that we can move forward on expanding access in those policy areas," Avore said.
Kline and Avore both identified some ways states can both bolster security without hindering voter access. For instance, states could:
- Implement electronic monitoring of drop boxes.
- Create signature verification systems for absentee ballots.
- Give election officials more time to process and count absentee ballots before Election Day.
- Establish a ballot tracking system.
- Ensure a paper trail for all ballots.
"We believe that all of these things tie together to create a real system that is safe, fair and accessible," Kline said. "But it does take commitment. You have to commit political capital, you have to commit actual capital. It does cost money if you want to do it really well."
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