States across the country saw an unprecedented attack on the right to vote this past year. In the wake of Trump’s unfounded election claims, states like Texas and Georgia passed restricting laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote. But at the same time, many other states — 24 — took steps to make voting easier, enacting reforms like universal mail voting, expanding access for people with disabilities and banning prison gerrymandering. Here’s a roundup of some positive voting reforms this year you may have missed.
California joined many of its fellow West Coast states
this year when Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed Assembly Bill 37 into law
. The bill makes permanent the universal vote-by-mail reform the state adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, California sent mail-in ballots to all registered voters, which not only kept Californians safe but led to the highest turnout since 1952
— 71% of eligible voters. Now, California will send voters ballots in every election. The bill also requires the state’s ballot tracking system be accessible to voters with disabilities and establishes minimum requirements for the number of ballot drop boxes and voting centers in each county to make returning ballots as easy as possible.
While A.B. 37 was the most sweeping voting reform passed in California, it wasn’t the only one. The state also passed
– Assembly Bill 796, which makes updates to California’s automatic voter registration
– Senate Bill 503, which improves the signature verification process to ensure fewer ballots are wrongly rejected.
Colorado passed a package of voting reforms last July. While not as sweeping as those passed by other states, in part because Colorado already conducts elections mostly by mail, Senate Bill 250
makes several updates and revisions to expand ballot access, such as:
– Expanding automatic voter registration to various state agencies and Medicaid.
– Allowing voters to register online using a Social Security number.
– Requiring colleges to distribute information to students on how to register to vote each semester.
– Limiting the placement of ballot drop boxes near police stations.
– Requiring drop boxes to stay open on election night until everyone in line has dropped off their ballot.
– Establishing new parameters for recall elections to limit unnecessary and deceptive recall efforts.
Colorado also approved House Bill 1011
, a law to improve accessibility for voters whose primary language is not English. Going forward, Colorado will establish a multilingual voter hotline to provide voters with ballot information in languages other than English. The law also requires counties with significant minority language use to provide both sample and actual ballots in that language.
When Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed Connecticut’s new budget into law on June 23, he also enacted several voting reforms that were added to the budget from Senate Bill 5
, a comprehensive reform package that passed the Connecticut Senate. These reforms include:
– Expanding automatic voter registration.
– Requiring employers to give employees time off to vote in state elections.
– Creating an online portal to request an absentee ballot.
– Making permanent the use of drop boxes to collect absentee ballots.
– Providing electronic absentee ballots to voters with a visual impairment.
– Allowing the use of e-signatures for most election-related forms and applications.
– Allowing voters to receive assistance in voting booths if they need it.
Another major provision
restores the right to vote for citizens on parole. Now, people with felony convictions in Connecticut will have their voting rights restored immediately upon release. Previously, Connecticut was the last state to distinguish between parole and probation
when determining when to restore voting rights. The state also approved Senate Bill 573
to prohibit prison gerrymandering in this year’s redistricting process.
Connecticut also took a significant step toward enacting early voting. In May, the Legislature passed a joint resolution
proposing a new constitutional amendment to allow early voting in the state. The amendment will now be on the ballot for voters to approve in 2022.
Thanks to Senate Bill 5
being signed into law, Delaware will now have an automatic voter registration
(AVR). Any adult who provides proof of citizenship to the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles will be automatically registered to vote unless they choose to opt out. The state will also be authorized to expand this program so other state agencies can register Delawareans to vote. Delaware also banned prison gerrymandering through the enactment of Senate Bill 171
Gov. David Ige (D) signed two bills to expand voting this year. Senate Bill 159
adds a voter registration application to all state ID and driver’s license applications. Applicants will be required to complete the voter registration section before the application is processed. Senate Bill 548
modifies Hawaii’s universal mail voting program adopted in 2019 by expanding the number of voting centers. It also establishes advisory committees for voters with disabilities and requires the state to inform individuals on parole or probation of their right to vote and provide them with voting information.
Gov. JB Pritzker (D) signed a package of voting reforms into law that are designed to make many of the changes Illinois adopted in response to the pandemic permanent. Senate Bill 825 and House Bill 1871
– Allow voters to sign up to automatically receive an absentee ballot for every election.
– Requires absentee ballots without adequate postage be counted.
– Allow voters to cast ballots from their cars through curbside voting.
– Make Election Day a state holiday in 2022.
– Require high schools to provide students with information about voter registration.
– Allow county sheriffs to establish temporary voting locations in county jails.
Illinois also passed House Bill 3235
, which requires the Department of Corrections to provide voting information to citizens when they are released from incarceration and allows the department to participate in the AVR program. Finally, the state included a provision banning prison gerrymandering in House Bill 3653
, a sweeping criminal justice and police reform bill signed by Pritzker in February.
While Indiana, like many other Republican-controlled states, approved several measures restricting the right to vote this year, it also enacted changes that will make voting easier in some cases. Senate Bill 398
, the state’s comprehensive voting reform package, includes several provisions protecting voters with disabilities and extends the deadline to receive absentee ballots from noon on Election Day to 6 pm. Additionally, House Bill 1579
allows counties to establish an additional day of in-person early voting and House Bill 1485
adds IDs issued by Native American tribes to the list of approved identification documents for voting.
Gov. Andy Beshear (D) signed a major voting reform bill this year that he helped shepherd through the Republican-controlled Legislature. House Bill 574
makes permanent many of the accommodations adopted last year to keep Kentuckians safe during COVID-19, including:
– An online portal for voters to request absentee ballots.
– Three days of early voting.
– Voting centers where residents of any precinct can cast their ballot.
– A paper trail for all ballots.
– Ballot drop boxes so voters can easily return absentee ballots.
House Bill 286
, which passed the Legislature with overwhelming majorities and was signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in June, expands early voting for presidential elections in the state. The early vote period is extended from a week to 11 days in order to alleviate long wait times at the polls. The move reflects the record number
of Louisianans who voted early last year.
Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed several bills modifying voting this year. Legislative Document 1575
adds student IDs from any authorized college in the state to the short list of acceptable ID forms voters can use when registering to vote. It also allows the secretary of state to establish new rules about partisan poll watchers. Legislative Document 1126
directs the secretary of state to create an online voter registration system by 2023. Legislative Document 1363
updates Maine’s election laws in various ways, including procedures for towns to use ballot drop boxes, a system for curing deficient ballots and an online method to track ballots. Finally, Maine’s supplemental budget included a provision
allowing seniors and Mainers with disabilities to sign up to automatically receive absentee ballots in every election.
Maryland enacted several voting reforms this year, many without the signature
of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), including:
– House Bill 206
and Senate Bill 596
, which expand early voting hours to 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for both primary and general elections.
– House Bill 745
, which redefines the state’s formula for determining the number of early voting locations in each county — adding more locations to counties with more than 50,000 residents.
– House Bill 1048
and Senate Bill 683
, which allow voters to sign up to automatically receive absentee ballots in every election and create standards for the placement of drop boxes.
– House Bill 222
and Senate Bill 525
, which require state prisons to provide voter registration applications and voting information to everyone who is or has been in a correctional facility and also provides a drop box at Baltimore’s central booking facility.
The Minnesota House of Representatives — controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party — and the Minnesota Senate — controlled by Republicans — had very different views of what kind of voting reform
the state needed. Ultimately, the two sides were only able to reach an agreement on ballot drop boxes. Minnesota’s omnibus state government finance and policy bill
establishes rules and procedures for the use of drop boxes in the state. Previously, state law only acknowledged that drop boxes existed
and could be used, with no guideline for local election officials.
Even though Montana passed several laws
this year designed to make voting harder, it did take steps to make voting easier for Montanans with disabilities. Senate Bill 15
, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) on March 16, updated several parts of Montana’s election laws to ensure voters with disabilities have access to accessible voting machines in all elections and protect their ability to cast ballots and receive voting assistance.
Like California, Nevada also adopted universal mail-in voting this year. Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signed Assembly Bill 321 on June 2
, which requires voters to opt out of receiving a mail ballot for every election rather than opt in. Voters will still be able to vote in person if they choose. A.B. 321 also establishes minimum drop box requirements for every county, allows voters to register to vote through Election Day and improves the procedure for verifying signatures on mail ballots. In addition to A.B. 321, Nevada also approved:
– Assembly Bill 121
, which allows voters with disabilities to register to vote and apply for and cast an absentee ballot electronically.
– Assembly Bill 432
, which expands and enhances Nevada’s AVR program to allow more state agencies to register voters.
New Hampshire eased voting for some incarcerated people. House Bill 555
updates absentee voter application forms to clarify that individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors or awaiting trial may vote by absentee ballot.
New Jersey became the 25th state to establish early voting for this year. Senate Bill 3203
, signed in March by Gov. Phil Murphy (D), mandates nine days of in-person voting before every general election, including two weekends. The legislation also mandates five days of early voting for presidential primaries and three days of early voting for non-presidential primaries. Gov. Murphy also signed Assembly Bill 698
, which expands New Jersey’s prohibition of prison gerrymandering to the congressional, county, municipal and school board level. Previous law only prohibited it at the state legislative level.
New Mexico enacted protections for Native American voters during emergencies. Under House Bill 231
, a polling location on tribal land cannot be closed or consolidated with another without written agreement from the tribe. The law also requires one operating polling location on tribal land if voters are unable to leave due to emergency conditions. The measure is intended
to address ballot access issues for Native Americans during the pandemic and ensure similar issues do not arise during future emergencies.
While two of the biggest voting reforms in New York this year — constitutional amendments to allow the state to enact no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration — were defeated at the polls
, the state still enacted reforms that, while smaller in scope, will still make it easier for New Yorkers to vote. These reforms include:
– Assembly Bill 2574
, which adds the State University of New York to the AVR program.
– Assembly Bill 6046
, which allows voters to request an absentee ballot online.
– Assembly Bill 6047
, which requires all ballots postmarked on Election Day to be counted as long as they are received within seven days of a primary election or 13 days of a general election.
– Senate Bill 830B
, which restores the right to vote to people convicted of a felony immediately upon release from prison, even if they are still on parole.
North Dakota is the only state in the country that does not have any form of voter registration
. Voters simply need to show acceptable identification to vote. House Bill 1078
makes voting easier for students by allowing them to use their student ID and a letter from their school with their legal name, in-state address and birth date as identification when voting. House Bill 1253
creates procedures for new residents of the state to vote in presidential elections and also allows former residents unable to register in their new state in time to vote in North Dakota presidential elections. North Dakota also passed a broader election reform bill, House Bill 1253
, that contains several provisions expanding access for people with disabilities.
Oklahoma expanded early voting through House Bill 2663
. Voters will have an additional day of in-person early voting for general elections.
Oregon, the pioneer of universal mail voting, made several tweaks to its election laws. House Bill 3291
requires all mail ballots received up to seven days after the election to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day — previously ballots had to be received by Election Day. House Bill 3021
improves access for voters whose first language is not English by requiring the state to publish voters’ pamphlets in the five most commonly spoken languages in each county. Finally, House Bill 2681
protects voters from being purged from voter rolls by prohibiting voters from being designated as inactive simply for not voting or updating their registration. Additionally, the bill requires all currently inactive voters be notified of their status and be given instructions on how to reactivate their registration.
When Gov. Phil Scott (R) signed Senate Bill 15
into law in June, Vermont established universal mail-in voting. Every eligible voter will be sent a ballot in October prior to each general election. Voters will be able to return ballots either through mail, in person or at ballot drop boxes. Voters will also be able to cure any deficiencies with their ballots to ensure their vote is counted. While not required, the law also provides flexibility for Vermont towns to use mail-in voting in local elections if they choose.
After winning a trifecta in Virginia in 2019, Democrats took several steps to transform voting in the state. Thanks to reforms enacted in recent years, Virginia went from being the second-hardest state to vote in to the 12th easiest state
. House Bills 1968, 1921 and 1888 and Senate Bill 1245
make it easier for Virginians to vote by:
– Expanding in-person early voting to include Sundays.
– Allowing voters with physical disabilities to cast their vote outside their polling locations.
– Allowing voters with visual impairment to vote using screen reader assistive technology.
– Requiring the establishment of drop boxes to return absentee ballots.
– Allowing voters to correct any mistakes on their absentee ballots to ensure they are counted.
In addition to these reforms making voting easier, Virginia also enacted:
– House Bill 2125
, which permits anyone 16 years of age or older to preregister to vote.
– House Bill 1890 and Senate Bill 1395
, which established a state-level voting rights act to protect voters from discrimination in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings weakening the federal Voting Rights Act.
Virginia also began taking steps
to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions. The General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment that will automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison. However, the amendment still has a long road ahead, as it must pass the General Assembly a second time — no longer guaranteed after Democrats lost control of the House of Delegates this year — and be approved by voters in a referendum.
Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed House Bill 1078
in April, which restores voting rights to parolees as soon as they are released from prison. As many 20,000 citizens will regain voting rights when the law goes into effect next year.
Even in a year marked by suppressive voter laws, a wide range of states took important steps to make voting easier. While we’re likely to see more suppressive laws proposed next year, it’s important to keep in sight the progress happening around the country. If Congress doesn’t act on voting rights next year, what individual states do to protect voting will be more important than ever. Here are four things states can do now to protect the right to vote.