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Prior to 2020, mail-in voting was largely noncontroversial across the United States. Former President Donald Trump changed that.
At least 19 states passed laws restricting voting access this year, while 25 enacted policies with provisions designed to make it easier for people to vote, according to a recent analysis of policies enacted between Jan. 1 and Sept 27.
But the numbers alone don’t tell the full story, said Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel for the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, which prepared the analysis.
“The kinds of legislation we’re seeing enacted to expand voting, in large part, are making small or incremental changes in states that already have really good voting access,” she said. “And the kinds of restrictions we’re seeing in other states are quite harsh and are worsening these voting systems that are already relatively less accessible. You can’t put them on a scale and say it’s even.”
For example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week signed into law a bill requiring local elections officials to mail ballots to registered voters for every election, codifying a temporary practice approved as a public health measure during the Covid-19 pandemic. With that change in place, California would have ranked sixth in voting accessibility, according to a 2020 study from researchers at Northern Illinois University. But even without it, the state ranked in the top 10.
By contrast, lawmakers in Georgia—ranked 49th in the same study, above only Texas—passed a sweeping election reform bill that restricted voting in a number of ways, including limiting the numbers and locations of ballot drop boxes, allowing absentee ballots only for voters that specifically request them, and shortening the timeframe that those ballots can be accepted and counted after Election Day.
The trend is widespread, Sweren-Becker said. Nationwide this year, lawmakers in states with already-limited voting access tended to push new policies to make it more difficult, while lawmakers from states with accessible voting practices largely sought to make it even easier to cast a ballot.
“Directionally, you see states going in opposite directions from each other,” she said. “States like Georgia and Texas and Florida that already impose hurdles for voters are making it even harder. Those tend to also be states that pass omnibus legislation, with multiple restrictive policies in a single bill, which is another reason the raw numbers are not that informative.”
Whether a state passed legislation expanding or restricting voting access tended to depend on its party of control, Sweren-Becker said. In states with Democratic majorities, new laws expanded voting access, while Republican-led legislatures sought to curtail it.
“There are some exceptions, but generally it is the case that where Republican legislators and governors are in power, they tend to be passing restrictive voting legislation,” she said. “Lawmakers are seeing a path to job security by trying to carve out portions of the electorate and discourage people from participating rather than going out and seeking to win over voters. I think, unfortunately, it’s a cynical effort to retain power by limiting who votes and how they do it.”
Red-state Republicans have disputed such claims, saying updated election policies were sorely needed to curtail fraud (there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election). After signing Georgia’s omnibus bill into law, Gov. Brian Kemp said the changes would address “alarming issues with how the election was handled.”
“Significant reforms to our state elections were needed,” he said.
The state Republican party agreed, announcing in March that it would sign on as a co-defendant in lawsuits filed to overturn the newly enacted omnibus bill.
“Our principles are clear: we want to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” David Shafer, the party’s chairman, said in a statement. “We want every lawful vote counted, every unlawful vote rejected and the counting to be done in the open and in accordance with the law.”
Why Mail-in Voting Became a Partisan Issue
Mail-in voting in particular seems to have become a partisan issue. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia allowed all voters to vote absentee or by mail in the 2020 presidential election, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center. That measure was meant in part to limit the spread of the coronavirus at in-person polling places, but it also made it easier for people to vote, contributing to record turnout nationwide.
Historically, mail-in and absentee voting has been uncontroversial and nonpartisan. Research has shown consistently that neither party benefits from expanding access to mail-in voting, including a 2020 study that found that both Democrats and Republicans enjoyed equal increases in turnout in three states that staggered implementation of the practice across counties.
But that perception changed last year. According to an April analysis from the Pew Research Center, 34% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters used absentee or mail ballots in the 2020 presidential election, compared with 58% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters. Just 35% of GOP voters said they believed everyone should be able to vote by mail, compared to 90% of left-leaning constituents.
“If Trump had taken a different rhetorical tack, that widening partisan divide might not have happened,” said Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “But it did shift, and that’s why we’re seeing these responses. There’s this myth that higher voter turnout is good for the Democratic party and bad for the Republican party, and it really is a myth—high turnout is good for democracy, period. It’s a partisan issue that shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
Republicans say updated election policies were needed to curtail fraud (despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election). After signing Georgia’s omnibus bill into law, Gov. Brian Kemp said the changes were necessary to address “alarming issues with how the election was handled.” “Significant reforms to our state elections were needed,” he said.
The state Republican party agreed, announcing in March that it would sign on as a codefendant in lawsuits filed to overturn the newly enacted omnibus bill. “Our principles are clear: we want to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” David Shafer, the party’s chairman, said in a statement. “We want every lawful vote counted, every unlawful vote rejected and the counting to be done in the open and in accordance with the law.”
The Future of Vote by Mail
It’s unclear whether Republicans and Democrats will continue to view mail-in voting so differently, Sweren-Becker said. If the partisan divide fades over time, the restrictions placed on voting by mail could have disastrous results for the same lawmakers that proposed them, including suppressed turnout in future elections.
“It’s not clear to me at all that the difference in how parties use vote by mail is going to hold past the 2020 election,” she said. “Republicans and Democrats both like voting by mail because it’s very convenient. It will affect voters of both parties.”
There are some actions that federal leaders could take to even voting access in all states, most notably by passing either the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or the For The People Act. (Both have been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and are awaiting action in the Senate.) But it’s unclear how likely either bill is to advance, Cooper said, and in the meantime, voters in blue and red states will have increasingly different experiences on election day.
“The states are taking their own paths based on partisanship,” he said. “I think what it means to vote in California and what it means to vote in Georgia is becoming more and more different by the day.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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