From sweeping reform to technical fixes, this year’s policy docket is full of voting rights bills, including vote-by-mail policies.
This article was originally published by the National Vote at Home Institute. It is republished here with permission.
The 2020 election cycle was a watershed for American elections. Decision-makers across parties made critical changes and emergency decisions to preserve voter safety, and it was made abundantly clear to voters and legislators alike just how important election policy is to our democracy.
Now legislators have entered the 2021 session with a keen eye towards policies that dictate how our elections are administered. From sweeping reform to technical fixes, this year’s policy docket is full of bills that look to both build upon—or tear down—the pro-democracy work that was done in and before 2020.
There is one trend that should be top of mind for every legislator, election official, and advocate when considering policy proposals this year: 81 percent of voters that voted using ballots they received by mail in 2020 indicate they would like to use the option again, according to a study conducted by MIT’s Charles Stewart III.
When we evaluate the effects that various policies have on voters, this greatly influences our assessments, though we take a holistic approach overall. Below, we address some of the bills we expect you are most likely to read about in the coming weeks and months. There are: the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of impact on voters.
The Good: Pro-Voter Progress
Vermont Going the Distance: S15
After their wildly successful venture with vote at home policies in 2020, Vermont is considering a bill, S15, to make proactive mailing of ballots to all voters in all statewide general elections a permanent policy. Additionally, this bill would keep and expand a variety of temporary policies put in place for the 2020 general election, including drop boxes, prepaid postage, curbside voting, and create a cure process with notification. S15 is expected to pass both chambers in the next month.
Virginia is for (Voting) Lovers: HB1888
HB 1888 creates an ongoing “single sign up” option for voters to continually be mailed their ballots after they have expressed wanting to vote at home. This means Virginia voters will not have to fill out the same form election after election. We love this kind of process reform because it means voters—and election officials—can spend less time on duplicative paperwork and less money in administrative costs. Virginia’s robust voter data maintenance programs allows the state to take this step with confidence.
Further, the bill made a wide variety of reforms permanent including ballot drop boxes, prepaid postage, and a cure process with voter notification. The governor has until the end of March to sign it, so keep your eyes peeled!
Small State, Big Impact: H6003
Do not let Rhode Island’s size fool you. This small-but-mighty state is working to take the big step to let voters sign up to receive mail ballots through a single sign-up process similar to the one Virginia is considering, a process that is already in place in states like Arizona and Florida.
H6003 also makes many of the pro-voter 2020 changes permanent like ballot drop boxes and replacing burdensome witness and notarization requirements with signature verification. For good measure, legislators added a provision allowing ballots postmarked by election day to be counted if they arrive a few days after, so voters can be sure their voices are heard no matter how long the mail takes. This is one of a few measures that we recommend in states to reduce ballot rejection rates.
In Kentucky, the glass is half full: HB574
If any state has metaphorically gone 0 to 60 in record time on voting reforms, it is Kentucky in 2020. The state missed an opportunity in HB574 by deciding not to keep allowing all voters to apply for an absentee ballot from last year, but they have made some other significant election improvements due to remarkable cross-partisan action.
The bill, written over several months with input from the Secretary of State and county clerks, makes permanent a variety of common sense changes including preprocessing of ballots, ballot drop boxes, an early voting period, online mail ballot requests, and a cure process with voter notification. The bill passed the House nearly unanimously and is heading into its final Senate considerations soon.
The Bad: Rolling Back Pro-Voter Progress from 2020
… And half empty: SB1
It’s not all good news out of Kentucky, though. 2020’s massive successes were made possible by the (Republican) Secretary of State, (Democratic) Governor and others working together in a bipartisan manner, but will be harder to replicate in the future, thanks to the controversial SB1. The bill adds barriers to making the kinds of emergency election provisions that created record turnout in the state during the pandemic.
Georgia on My Mind: HB531
Georgia saw record turnout in 2020 after a good record with no-excuse absentee voting and a long early voting period. Yet the state has multiple bills that would roll back access.
Similar to SB241 (a bill discussed below), HB531 includes a litany of provisions that limit voting access, and both are looking likely to become law. HB531 limits early voting, access to ballot drop boxes, changes the process to apply for mail ballots and more. This omnibus bill is complex and controversial. In short, Georgia could do much, much better.
The Ugly: Rolls Back Pro-Voter Access Overall
Building Barriers in Georgia
Despite massive increases in turnout in 2020, the Georgia Senate recently passed SB241 which gets rid of the ability for the vast majority of voters to get a mail ballot by requiring voters to meet a certain set of criteria to receive a mail ballot. The bill also takes a step backwards in replacing signature verification to verify mail ballot envelopes with an ID requirement, further reducing access to the ballot. Not everyone has a photo ID, but nearly everyone has a signature.
In addition to getting rid of no-excuse mail ballots, the bill would also severely limit the State Board of Elections’ ability to make emergency voter safety rules. There is still a chance that does not become law, but not a very large one.
Backsliding in the Sun: S90
Despite a strong showing in 2020, Florida is looking to roll back many of its most popular voting procedures. Florida has one of the most sophisticated and successful election systems in the country, but S90 takes the state backwards. Recent amendments to the bill shorten the amount of time a single mail ballot request lasts: from two election cycles to one. Not only is this completely unnecessary, but it doubles the paperwork required for both voters and election officials at every stage.
Equally misguided, the bill also bans ballot drop boxes, a secure and convenient option that over 40 percent of mail voters across the country used in the 2020 November election.
What Is the Takeaway?
Election policy is a mixed bag this year with some states taking giant leaps forward and others taking dangerous steps back. Here at the National Vote at Home Institute, we champion legislation that benefits voters, so first and foremost, we want to commend the states that are jumping feet first into making impactful codified changes to the way they run their elections. We also think it is important to call out bad policy when we see it and we are certainly seeing it in states like Georgia and Florida, which are looking to limit access to the ballot box and compromise election security.
Policymakers need to know that the safety and security of our elections can be improved while increasing access to mail voting for those who are eligible. In fact, our democracy depends on it.
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