Most states expanded voting access – many of them dramatically – in response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. The result was an election that by nearly all accounts was well-managed and secure.
But as the National Conference of State Legislatures points out in an excellent roundup of voting actions in 2020, most of these changes were temporary. As a result, while some states are thinking of making them permanent, others want to roll them back.
Make no mistake: As legislative sessions are getting underway across the country, neither side is wasting any time introducing bills. And according to the Brennan Center for Justice, they’re doing it at a scale that may be unprecedented.
The Brennan Center has just released a comprehensive report which points out that both sides – those who want to restrict voting access and those who want to expand it – are introducing bills at more than double the rate they were one year ago. Brennan counts 106 restrictive measures, compared with 35 last February, and 406 expansive ones, compared with 188 a year earlier.
“After historic turnout and increased mail voting in 2020, state lawmakers are pulling in opposite directions,” the report says. “New legislation reflects a surge of bills to limit voter access, with a particular focus on mail voting and voter ID. At the same time, other bills would cement pro-voter policies implemented temporarily last year.”
In particular, the Brennan Center says, legislators are focusing attention on absentee voting (either to restrict it or to expand it or make it permanent). More than a quarter of the voting and election bills that have been introduced address absentee voting.
Here is a review of what the Brennan Center has found:
Around the nation, the restrictive bills fall into four categories: limiting access to mail voting, imposing stricter voter ID requirements, limiting policies to increase voter registration, and enabling more aggressive purges of voter rolls. Pennsylvania leads the nation in legislative proposals to restrict voting with 14 of them, followed by New Hampshire with 11 and Missouri with nine.
A few examples of restrictive measures:
- Three separate bills in Pennsylvania would eliminate no-excuse mail voting. (No-excuse mail voting means a voter doesn’t need to provide a reason for voting by mail.)
- An Arizona bill would require all mail ballots to be notarized.
- A Virginia bill would prohibit the use of ballot drop boxes by requiring that all absentee ballots be returned to the office of the general registrar.
- A Mississippi bill would prohibit use of out-of-state driver’s licenses as a form of idea and a New Hampshire bill would disallow use of student IDs.
- Legislators in Mississippi and New York have introduced bills that would require voters to provide proof of citizenship to register to vote.
The expansive bills primarily focus on mail voting, early voting, voter registration, and voting rights restoration. New York leads the pack with 56 expansive bills, but the report notes significant numbers in some surprising states, such as Texas, with 53, and Mississippi, with 39.
A few examples:
- Twenty-seven bills in 11 states would eliminate the excuse requirement and permit all voters to vote by mail in all elections.
- Thirteen bills in eight states would authorize or require local officials to provide mail ballot drop boxes.
- Lawmakers in 14 states have proposed expansions of early voting, including 24 bills that would allow early voting for the first time.
- Nineteen bills in 13 states would allow election officials to start counting ballots before election day.
- Legislators in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas have introduced bills that would allow voters to register to vote online.
The differences between the two camps — restriction and expansion — are clearly partisan. Generally, Republicans favor restriction and Democrats expansion.
Whether restriction really helps Republicans, however, is open to debate. In Texas, for instance, record voter turnouts prompted by looser restrictions did not impede Republican success on Election Day.
Each party has its own beliefs about rules governing elections, but what does the general public think? A poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides some clues.
One significant finding: A photo-ID requirement for voting enjoys strong support along the political spectrum. However, the poll also found that most voters don’t favor new restrictions other than the photo ID. They strongly support no-excuse absentee voting and ballot drop boxes.
It is unknown how many of these bills, whether they are for restrictions or expansions, will pass. And if they do, governors in those states still must sign off on them.
But as Brennan Center attorney Eliza Sweren-Becker told ABC News, one of the lessons of the recent election is that expanded voter access is popular among the majority of voters on both sides of the political aisle.
If this is an issue that is important to you, it might be worth your while to reach out to your elected representatives and let them know what you think.