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How the 5 most populous states have overhauled their election systems

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.

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California

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.

Texas

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.

Florida

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.

New York

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.

Pennsylvania

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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