Election administration made headlines—and, for some, headaches—last year as issues once limited to election insiders became the subject of mainstream debate.
Yet election-related enactments were down in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on legislative sessions and priorities. Lawmakers in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico passed 223 bills last year—fewer than two-thirds as many enactments as in 2019 (when 46 states passed 367 measures) and in 2018 (when 46 states passed 336 bills). In fact, 2020 had the fewest total election enactments since 2010.
The pandemic not only disrupted legislative sessions but also brought new legislative attention to voting options, and absentee/mail voting was far and away the most popular topic—24 states and D.C. passed 52 bills on the subject. Voter registration—last year’s hot topic—remained a top legislative concern, alongside enactments on candidates, election officials, postelection processes and emergency powers.
We’ve summarized the year’s legislative trends below, and for complete details on these enactments and many others, visit NCSL’s state election legislation database.
Absentee and Mail Voting
Most enactments on absentee and mail voting were temporary changes prompted by the pandemic and aimed at helping voters cast ballots during new, challenging circumstances. While many of these changes came from executive branches (not covered in this article), legislatures also sprang into action.
California, D.C. and Nevada enacted universal mail voting for the 2020 general election only. Nine states—Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma and South Carolina—temporarily expanded eligibility requirements for absentee voting due to COVID-19.
Some states made short-term changes to the absentee ballot application process. Delaware, Illinois and Massachusetts mailed absentee ballot applications to all registered voters for the November election. Illinois allowed absentee ballots to be requested online, and North Carolina approved the submission of absentee ballot applications via email or fax.
To accommodate more mail ballots, Connecticut allowed absentee ballot processing to begin 14 days prior to the election, rather than seven days. The Constitution State also allowed ballot drop boxes for 2020.
Will any of these temporary changes become permanent? Or will states return to pre-pandemic policies? It’s hard to say, but we expect absentee and mail voting to remain a hot topic in 2021.
Of course, lawmakers in a few states enacted more lasting changes to absentee and mail voting policies. Louisiana added new eligibility requirements for witnessing an absentee ballot and restricted the addresses to which ballots can be sent, while Virginia instituted no-excuse absentee voting, a bill that was well on its way before COVID-19 and brings the Old Dominion State into the company of 33 others and D.C.
Oklahoma and Utah placed restrictions on who can return absentee ballots for a voter, pejoratively known as “ballot harvesting.” Maryland enacted prepaid postage for mail ballots, Michigan authorized some city or township clerks to begin opening absentee ballots one day earlier, Mississippi allowed postmarked ballots to be accepted after Election Day, and New Jersey established a ballot cure process.
Eight states passed 18 bills related to voter registration, and New York made late-breaking news by enacting automatic voter registration. Virginia also passed automatic voter registration earlier in the year.
Most other enactments made smaller changes to existing state policies, and several focused on voter registration outreach. For example, D.C. will require its Board of Elections to create voter registration resources for new homeowners and tenants and require public housing authorities to provide those resources to new tenants. And Virginia will require high schools to provide students with registration information and opportunities to register to vote.
California allowed voters to change their registration address or party affiliation up until the close of the polls on Election Day. Kentucky allowed voters to cast provisional ballots if they cannot provide proof of identification. In West Virginia, counties will now be permitted to store voter registration records in a digital format, and Wyoming will allow tribal identification cards to be used for voter registration.
Twenty enactments in 12 states addressed candidates for elective office. A handful of these made temporary changes to candidacy procedures due to the pandemic: Alabama and New York extended candidate qualification and filing deadlines, and New Jersey temporarily allowed electronic signatures on candidate petitions.
Changes unrelated to COVID-19 include alterations to candidate filing requirements in Louisiana and Virginia. Louisiana will require candidates to submit valid forms of identification, and in Virginia, candidates must submit a statement of economic interests.
Election officials were the subject of 17 enactments in six states. Virginia made several notable changes to its State Board of Elections—including increasing the size of the board and requiring it to identify, assess and address threats to election integrity.
Louisiana prevented the disclosure of poll workers’ addresses and telephone numbers, and Mississippi authorized a per diem compensation for election officials working during special elections.
Nine states passed 10 bills on postelection processes, which include ballot counting, canvassing and certification.
California extended its county risk-limiting audit program through 2023. Idaho strengthened its laws related to ballot custody, and Utah enacted multiple new provisions to ballot custody, voter intent and other postelection processes. Virginia established new procedures for election recounts.
Not surprising in a year with a pandemic, 10 enactments in nine states were related to emergencies. Some states expanded emergency powers for local entities. Louisiana gave parish boards of election new emergency powers related to absentee and mail voting; New Mexico did the same for its counties. Massachusetts authorized municipalities to postpone elections in the event of an emergency.
As executive branches took action on elections during the pandemic, some states sought to clarify who ultimately has policymaking power. To that end, Iowa and Ohio restricted the emergency powers of state election commissioners and state executives, while Vermont authorized the secretary of state—in consultation with the governor—to order appropriate election procedures for 2020.
Three states—Indiana, Louisiana and Washington—enacted four laws on cybersecurity. Indiana now requires its counties to use a cybersecurity company designated by the secretary of state to investigate cybersecurity attacks, protect against malicious software and analyze information technology security risks.
Louisiana required the secretary of state to establish cybersecurity training for people with access to the state’s voter registration computer system and prohibited election officials from disclosing various types of computer system information, including internet protocol addresses. Washington enacted new policies to address security breaches of election systems by foreign actors.
Legislatively Referred Ballot Measures
Voters passed a handful of legislatively referred ballot measures related to elections. Two of these addressed who can vote: Californians passed a measure restoring the right to vote to people on parole, and Alabama voters approved an amendment changing language in the constitution from “every citizen” can vote to “only a citizen” can vote. (Colorado and Florida passed similar measures, though those were initiated by citizens, not the legislature.)
In Nevada, voters approved a measure establishing constitutional rights to certain voting procedures, including a right to vote without intimidation or threats, a right to return a spoiled ballot and receive a replacement, and a right to receive instructions on how to use voting equipment.
And Mississippi made a sweeping electoral change when voters passed a constitutional amendment removing the requirement that a candidate for governor or state office receive the highest number of votes in a majority of the state’s 122 House districts. If a candidate does not receive a majority vote of the people, they will proceed to a runoff election, instead of being chosen by a vote of the House of Representatives.
For more on statewide ballot measures, visit our 2020 state election coverage or statewide ballot measures database.
- California will require its secretary of state to establish a Native American Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee.
- The District of Columbia joined Maine and Vermont in allowing convicted felons to vote while incarcerated; it also passed legislation requiring polling places for incarcerated voters.
- Illinois and Virginia made Election Day a holiday, and Tennessee did the same for Women’s Suffrage Day, Aug. 26.
- Maine implemented ranked-choice voting for presidential elections—it’s the first state to do so, though this alternative voting system has been in place for primaries and federal congressional elections since 2018. Virginia also permitted local governments to use ranked-choice voting.
- Utah repealed straight ticket voting.
Virginia created an Election Day page program, which allows high school students to serve as election workers.
Looking Ahead to 2021
We haven’t mentioned every enactment from 2020—we couldn’t possibly cover them all here—so to learn more about election changes in your state or elsewhere, visit our state election legislation database.
Our team anticipates continued interest in election administration, especially absentee and mail voting, when legislatures convene in 2021. But we also know—now more than ever—that predicting legislative trends is nearly impossible. We’ll do our best to track the action, and we are here for you—our members—whenever you need us.
Amanda Zoch is an NCSL legislative policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.