How States Used the Pandemic To Restrict (Or Expand) Voting
When COVID-19 first began spreading, many states — blue and red alike — made emergency changes to voting procedures to ensure voters could safely cast their ballots. Many of these changes, including expanded mail-in voting, extended deadlines, ballot drop boxes and drive-thru voting, made voting much easier than showing up to an in-person polling location. Consequently, the 2020 election had one of the highest voter turnouts in decades.
In the aftermath of the election, states had very different responses to the changes the pandemic caused when it came to voting. Some states used the pandemic as a roadmap to identify voting reforms to eliminate and further restrict the right to vote, while others eased voting by making these reforms permanent. Whether a state chose to roll back or keep reforms depends almost entirely on which party is in power. Here’s how states used the lessons of the pandemic to restrict — or expand — voting.
Many GOP voter suppression bills targeted the exact reforms that helped expand voting during the pandemic.
Many Republican-led states enacted sweeping bills to restrict voting despite a complete lack of evidence of voter fraud. In these states, the bills not only rolled back the pandemic-era measures that expanded voting, but also added even more limits on voting that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic.
Georgia saw a massive increase in the use of mail-in ballots during the 2020 election. This increase was boosted by the use of ballot drop boxes across the state, especially in the core counties of the Atlanta area. In a few counties, over half of voters who voted by mail used drop boxes to submit their mail-in ballots. Thanks in part to these drop boxes and other voting innovations, Georgia’s turnout rate reached nearly 70% of registered voters, an 8 point increase from 2016.
Following the 2020 election, Georgia enacted a sweeping voter suppression bill, Senate Bill 202, directly targeting both mail-in voting and drop boxes. In 2020, Fulton County, the state’s most populous (and most Democratic) county, had 38 ballot drop boxes that were accessible 24/7. S.B. 202 removes 30 of those drop boxes, limiting the county to just eight of them, and makes them available only during early voting hours. The bill also moves the deadline to request an absentee ballot from the Friday before an election to 11 days before an election and adds a voter ID requirement to request an absentee ballot. Other changes include placing restrictions on mobile voting centers that Fulton pioneered and banning voters from voting outside their precincts before 5:00 p.m. on Election Day.
For Iowa’s 2020 primary election, Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) sent absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. He planned to do it again for the general election, but over the summer, the Iowa Legislature passed House File 2486, which required the secretary of state to ask permission from the Iowa Legislative Council in order to send the applications. The Council approved the request and every voter received an application for the general election. Thanks in part to this move, Iowans cast a record number of ballots that year — with more than half voting by mail or in person at satellite voting stations.
In 2021, Iowa enacted two laws that made significant changes to the absentee voting system. S.F. 413 and 568 reduce the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot from 110 days to only 55 days and the amount of time to return ballots from 29 days to just 20. Most ballots returned after Election Day won’t be counted. The laws limit each county to a single drop box and restrict the ability of counties to set up satellite voting centers. The laws also ban election officials from sending absentee ballot applications proactively — only the secretary of state can do this, and only with permission from the Legislature or the Legislative Council during an emergency.
In 2020, Harris County, under the leadership of County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D), established drive-thru voting and 24-hour vote centers to ease voting during the pandemic. The county, the state’s most populous and most diverse, intended to set up multiple drop boxes until Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an order limiting each Texas county to just one — from Loving County (population of 64 people) to Harris (4.7 million people). Harris County even planned to send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter, but the Texas Supreme Court refused.
In 2021, Texas enacted Senate Bill 1, effectively banning or limiting many of Harris County’s innovations that eased voting. S.B. 1 bans 24-hour vote centers and instead restricts voting to the hours between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. and bans drop boxes by requiring voters to hand in their mail-in ballots directly to an election official. The law also limits drive-thru voting to only voters with disabilities that prevent them from entering a polling location. Finally, S.B 1 bans officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters.
A few states made pandemic changes permanent.
Other states that implemented temporary measures to expand access to voting during the pandemic chose to make them permanent rather than pass restrictive bills. With few exceptions, these were Democratic-led states.
In 2020, California proactively sent mail-in ballots to every registered voter, contributing to a turnout of 71% of eligible voters — the highest in over fifty years. In response, the state enacted Assembly Bill 37 last September. Now, beginning this year, every registered voter will receive a ballot in the mail at least 29 days before every election.
Gov. Andy Beshear (D) and the Republican-controlled Kentucky General Assembly reached a bipartisan agreement last year to make permanent some of the state’s 2020 changes to voting laws. House Bill 574 creates three days of no-excuse early voting, sets up an online portal to request absentee ballots, establishes voting centers where residents of any precinct can cast their ballots and mandates ballot drop boxes throughout the state. This year, Beshear also signed House Bill 564 into law, which creates six additional days of in-person early voting for voters with an excuse.
In 2020, Massachusetts enacted a temporary change to voting laws that allowed all voters to vote by mail, which 42% chose to do. But after extending the measure through most of 2021, lawmakers let it expire in December of that year despite its success in the state.
Since then, both the Massachusetts Senate and House have passed separate bills that would make the changes permanent, but lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement among themselves to send a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) desk. One sticking point is whether or not to enact same-day registration.
After nearly half of Nevadans voted by mail in 2020, the state enacted Assembly Bill 321 to establish permanent mail-in voting, meaning that every Nevadan will automatically receive a mail-in ballot unless they opt-out. While Republicans are trying to get a measure on the ballot to repeal the law this year, the effort is likely dead after a state court ruling forced petitioners to begin collecting signatures again.
Like California and Nevada, Vermont sent mail-in ballots to every registered voter in 2020. Last June, Gov. Phil Scott (R) made this change permanent for future general elections. Through Senate Bill 15, every voter will be sent a ballot in October. The bill also grants flexibility to each town to choose to use mail-in ballots for local elections as well.
Blue states learned to expand voting from the pandemic, while red states learned to restrict it.
Much of American society is defined by inertia — we keep doing things the same way simply because that’s how they’ve always been done. Elections are no different and states are usually slow to adopt new reforms to make voting easier. The pandemic, however, forced states to find innovative ways to help people vote, expanding voting and adopting reforms they may have never considered before. In the nearly two years since the 2020 election, some states have either applied the lessons learned in the pandemic or have thrown them out the window. The states that fall into each category should not surprise us. With few exceptions, blue states used the pandemic reforms to permanently expand voting in their states while red states saw how the pandemic reforms made voting easier and, subsequently, rolled them back. In Georgia and Texas, Republicans went as far as to target the reforms used by large, diverse and Democratic counties. It’s not hard to conclude that one party in America wants to make voting easier for everyone, while the other wants to make it harder – but only for those who will vote them out of office.