The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

States across the country are dropping barriers to voting, widening a stark geographic divide in ballot access

Voting in Las Vegas on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. Nevada permanently adopted universal mail voting this year. (John Locher/AP)

More than half of U.S. states have lowered some barriers to voting since the 2020 election, making permanent practices that helped produce record voter turnout during the coronavirus pandemic — a striking countertrend to the passage this year of restrictions in key Republican-controlled states.

New laws in states from Vermont to California expand access to the voting process on a number of fronts, such as offering more options for early and mail voting, protecting mail ballots from being improperly rejected and making registering to vote easier.

Some states restored voting rights to people with past felony convictions or expanded options for voters with disabilities, two long-standing priorities among voting advocates. And in Virginia, a new law requires localities to receive preapproval or feedback on voting changes as a shield against racial discrimination, a first for states after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Voting Rights Act in 2013.

Senate Democrats have two options right now to strengthen voting rights: Passing the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, neither is easy. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

The push to make voting easier around the country comes even as Republicans have embraced voting restrictions in GOP-controlled states such as Georgia, Florida and Iowa. Some states have passed laws that make some elements of voting easier and others harder, leading to mixed effects.

But the overall result is a widening difference in ballot access depending on where voters live — one shaped by how lawmakers have reacted to the pandemic and to former president Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost the 2020 election because of massive fraud.

“There’s a fault line that’s developing between states working to strengthen our democracy and states actively restricting it,” said Liz Avore, vice president for law and policy with the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, which tracks developments in state election law and analyzed this year’s legislative action in a report released last week. “It is stark when you look at the map. . . . That division is really remarkable.”

The trend is not limited to blue states, though they have led the charge. Indiana and Kentucky made several significant changes this year, including expanding the availability of ballot drop-off locations and establishing processes for voters to correct certain errors that would otherwise invalidate their mail ballots. At least four red states created systems for voters to track their ballots through the mail. Louisiana eliminated hurdles for people with past felony convictions as they register to vote. Montana made voting more accessible for people with disabilities, even as it ended same-day voter registration.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican who fought for his state’s policy changes, said the GOP needs to “stop being scared of voters.”

“Let them vote, and go out and make the case,” he said in an interview, adding: “I want Republicans to succeed. I think it’s an unforced error to shoot themselves in the foot in these states by shrinking access. You don’t need to do that.”

Seventy-one new laws easing voting rules are poised to benefit 63 million eligible voters in 28 states, or about one-quarter of the U.S. voting population, according to the Voting Rights Lab report, which tracked policy changes as of June 13.

Thirty-one new laws in 18 states create more barriers to the ballot box, affecting 36 million eligible voters, or 15 percent of the national voting population, the report stated.

Legislative debates over restrictions are underway in key states such as Texas and Pennsylvania, leaving open the possibility that new limitations affecting millions more voters still will be enacted this year.

The uncertainty is heightened by a standoff on Capitol Hill over Democratic-backed legislation to protect voting rights. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans blocked a test vote that would have cleared the way to start debate on the bill, known as the For the People Act, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to fight.

Senate Republicans block debate on elections bill, dealing blow to Democrats’ voting rights push

“States are stepping up in the absence of or while waiting for congressional action,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, adding: “Some of this is really a call to action to Washington.”

Without federal standards, voters’ experiences will vary widely from state to state in details large and small — from the length of lines on Election Day to the process for registering to vote or casting mail ballots. Starting this year, the contrast is poised to become more dramatic as the new election laws begin to take effect.

“Voting rights really shouldn’t be impacted by boundary lines that are drawn arbitrarily for states,” said Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) of Nevada, which enacted universal mail voting this year. “It should be the same for everybody. . . . It shouldn’t be dependent on who is in power and who is not and who is passing the laws.”

Legacy of the pandemic

The new laws that ease the voting process build on emergency actions taken to protect voters during the pandemic, when public health measures barred many people from leaving home or gathering in public places.

Before 2020, only five states automatically sent mail ballots to all voters, a figure that jumped to nine — plus the District of Columbia — for the general election in November. Roughly three dozen states offered no-excuse absentee voting or proactively mailed absentee ballot applications to voters, leading to a surge in the number of Americans who cast ballots by mail.

Under laws passed this year, Vermont and Nevada will mail ballots to active voters for general elections and all elections, respectively. Maryland has created a permanent absentee voter list, which allows voters to sign up to receive mail ballots for every election, and Connecticut and New York are moving toward amending their state constitutions to allow voters to cast mail ballots without having to provide any excuse.

So far, nearly two dozen states have taken steps to improve the process of mail voting — agreeing to pay for return postage for ballots, expand the use of drop boxes or give election administrators more time to process returned mail ballots before Election Day, for example.

These moves reflect the popularity of the more flexible voting options during the pandemic and election administrators’ success in implementing them securely for November’s contests.

“We started getting input pretty early from our residents, saying, ‘This is great — why can’t we do this all the time?’” Sisolak said in an interview.

In 2020, active voters in the state received ballots in the mail for both the June primary and the general election. Sisolak noted that Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, found no evidence to support GOP claims of widespread electoral fraud in the state.

“You’re always going to get the naysayers and the haters that are going to complain about the process, but it proved very effective and very secure, so I’m happy about it,” Sisolak said. The majority-Democratic state legislature approved the new system with Republicans unified in opposition.

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R) argued that the measure would “further degrade the fragile civic trust” held by Nevadans.

“Whether it was one fraudulent vote or a thousand, it does not matter if the trust in the system has been severely questioned,” Titus said in remarks on the floor before the final vote, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “And I am concerned that this bill just furthers that distrust of the system.”

Trump has repeatedly and falsely attacked universal mail voting as insecure, a view that has gained traction in some — but not all — parts of the GOP.

In Vermont, the state’s new universal ballot-mailing program was signed into law this month by Republican Gov. Phil Scott after receiving broad support across the political spectrum in the state legislature. It included a process to correct voter errors on mail ballots, which was not previously available in the state.

After the state mailed ballots to active registered voters during the 2020 general election, GOP legislators were “pleasantly surprised that it worked so well,” said Secretary of State Jim Condos (D). He said that one former skeptic contacted him after the election to “tell me that he had his doubts about vote-by-mail, but he actually thinks it helped him get more voters.”

“Here in Vermont, we have the decency to reach across the aisle and work amongst our legislators and our governor to reach good language,” Condos said. “This is the largest [expansion] of Vermont voter access in decades, and we’re really, really pleased.”

Bipartisan agreement was also critical in Kentucky, where Adams lobbied for a wide-ranging bill whose provisions included creating an early voting period, allowing the use of drop boxes and adding a process to remedy certain errors on mail ballots. (The final law also allows counties to combine precincts and establish “voting centers,” a provision that some critics say could limit voter access at times.)

During the 2020 general election, the state allowed anyone concerned about exposure to the coronavirus to request an absentee ballot. The state installed drop boxes for returning mail ballots and offered a three-week early voting period.

“Even before the election was fully over, I was already inclined to make that and other things fully permanent. I asked my staff: ‘Y’all think I need to have my head examined? Because I think we should try to keep this,’ ” Adams said.

Building consensus for the bill was not easy, he added. Adams said he relied on several points to make the case to fellow Republicans: that rural voters had embraced mail ballots, offering a potential upside for the GOP; that offering early in-person voting could reduce the risk of vote-buying schemes on Election Day; and that the earliest American presidential elections took place over the course of several days, making his proposal historically authentic.

The bipartisan measure was signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, in April.

“It wasn’t a Republican bill or Democrat bill. This was put together by election officials. . . . That’s a big difference from what you’re seeing everywhere else in the country,” Adams said.

He took issue with fellow Republicans who have sought to restrict voting access around the country, calling that effort bad for voters and bad for the GOP.

“They keep committing these unforced errors,” he said, offering the example of trying to restrict the use of drop boxes. “It’s absolutely appropriate to enhance security, but you can’t have a blind spot on access.”

Adams said a Georgia bill that would have banned early voting on Sundays, when many Black people have traditionally cast ballots in the state, was “racially insensitive.” The proposal drew a flurry of criticism and was not included in the final legislation. A similar Sunday morning voting ban was proposed by Texas Republicans as part of a bill that did not advance because Democratic lawmakers staged a walkout.

“Even if they are smart enough not to pass a bad policy like that, the optics reflect badly on all of us,” Adams said.

Blue state action

Election officials have repeatedly pointed to November’s record voter turnout as evidence that the pandemic-era rules should remain in place. More than 159 million people voted, the highest turnout in a century.

Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper praised the expansion of mail voting there in 2020 as a “godsend.”

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said, noting that turnout among registered voters was the highest it had been in close to 30 years. “It’s pretty significant.”

Since then, the state has passed multiple election law changes, including a first-of-its kind state voting rights act, which requires localities to receive public feedback or get approval for voting changes from the attorney general’s office as a safeguard against racial discrimination.

Republicans opposed the measure, with some arguing that it would unfairly burden local governments.

Some blue states are using momentum from the 2020 cycle to replace what critics said were outdated voting restrictions. In the Northeast, several traditionally Democratic states maintained limits on early and mail voting that were loosened during the pandemic and are now receiving fresh scrutiny.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) signed four new election laws this year and is expected to sign at least eight more as Democratic legislators double down on efforts they began in 2019 to improve the voting experience in the state.

“I like to say we’re taking ourselves from among the worst in the nation to among the first in the nation,” said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat who represents western Queens. “We’re tackling all the big initiatives that a lot of other states have been using for a while,” such as expanded early voting and automatic voter registration.

Recently, the New York legislature passed bills to increase the number of early voting sites and to mandate that returned mail votes be processed earlier. Both bills seek to address areas of election administration on which New York has been criticized — long lines to vote and long waits for election results.

“We feel a special obligation to continue down this road, given that we’re noticing other parts of the country moving in the opposite direction,” Gianaris said.

“It shouldn’t have to be said, but the more eligible voters vote, the better it is for our democracy,” he said. “The idea that not everyone agrees with that is shocking.”