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Early voting in Garden City, New York, in October last year. More people vote early than ever before. The consequences of that shift, however, are less clear.

What 2020’s Historic Voter Turnout Means for the Future

By Wendy Underhill and Amanda Zoch | July 28, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

In 2020—for the first time ever—more people voted before Election Day than on it.

In 2000, 14% of voters cast their ballots before Election Day, either in person at an early voting site or by absentee ballot. In 2020, 72% did so, according to the MIT Election Data + Science Lab.

It might be easy to attribute this enormous change to the pandemic. Throughout 2020, social distancing led to far fewer up-close-and-personal encounters of all sorts, not just to fewer Election Day voters. Indeed, the jump in absentee, or mail, voting was dramatic: In 2016, 40% of votes were cast early—far below the record-setting 2020 number.

But there’s more to the story. A trend toward more pre-Election Day voting was well underway even before the pandemic took it to new heights.

How We Voted Absentee

Going back three centuries, if voters couldn’t gather on the courthouse steps to say “yea” or “nay” (and drink ale provided by the candidates), then they didn’t get a say in decision-making. That changed during the Civil War when soldiers from both sides were allowed to “vote absentee.” During World War II, Congress passed legislation making it easier for soldiers to vote, resulting in 3.2 million absentee ballots cast from abroad. Then came the 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act and the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009, which required that ballots be mailed—or sometimes emailed—to overseas voters 45 days before a general election.

While service members’ needs drove the initial push for absentee voting, extending it to others didn’t take long. By the late 1800s, a few states permitted any voter who was going to be absent on Election Day to vote absentee. The list of acceptable reasons for voting absentee just kept growing in state after state. Virginia had a total of 20 possible excuses in 2018, before dropping the need altogether and—like more and more states—allowing any voter to vote absentee, no excuse necessary.

All this absentee voting is very American. “The U.S. is one of the few countries where no-excuse absentee voting is even a thing,” Avery Davis-Roberts of The Carter Center says. Only about 25% of countries offer it at all, according to comparative elections data from the United Nations-backed ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, and when it is offered, it’s just for those who have a good reason.

Oregon went a step further than other states in 2000 by opting to mail a ballot to every voter. This system goes by a variety names: vote by mail, vote at home, mail-in voting. By 2020, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington had joined Oregon in mailing out ballots. Voters can return their ballots as they please—by mailing them back or dropping them off at an office or a secure drop box.

Even with mail and absentee voting rising, in-person voting isn’t going away—it’s just happening earlier. More and more states allowed voters to cast a vote at an election office or other designated site in the weeks before Election Day. In fact, absentee/mail voting and early in-person voting were nearly equal in usage through 2016.

How We Vote Now

The trend is clear: More people vote early than ever before.

The consequences of this shift are less clear. It has long been believed that voter fraud was more likely with absentee ballots than with in-person voting. The Heritage Foundation’s election fraud database includes recent cases from North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, the first congressional election to be rerun “after credible allegations of absentee ballot abuse.” In Paterson, New Jersey, a 2020 city council election was overturned for the same reason. Two clear examples, but no long-term studies show how common it is, and some, such as the Brennan Center, argue that mail fraud rates are “infinitesimally small.”

“Running an election by mail is both more complicated for administrators and more perilous for the voter, and those two facts are related,” says Charles Stewart III, an MIT political science professor and director of the MIT Election Data + Science Lab. “Every part of the process has to be game-planned out, from the request of the ballots to the sending and the return of the ballots, until tabulation. Then it’s finally similar to Election Day voting.”

Running an election by mail is both more complicated for administrators and more perilous for the voter. —Charles Stewart III, director of the MIT Election Data + Science Lab

Those logistical and technical challenges take time and resources to work out. Time was in short supply in 2020, as voters chose to vote early and absentee in droves. “We’re hearing from election officials that the complications in 2020 associated with voting by mail were overwhelming,” Stewart says—at least for those who weren’t ready for it.

As for voter challenges, Stewart estimates that 5%-10% of in-person voters have a problem with registration, the voting equipment or the ballot. “These problems are dealt with in real time,” he says. But when mail voters encounter similar problems, “they give up or make a mistake that may mean the ballot can’t be counted. Vote by mail has advantages, but it comes with risks as well.”

Lawmakers have had seven months to consider whether they liked what they saw last year, when almost all states eased restrictions on absentee voting, and some actively encouraged it. Not only have legislators considered it, they’ve introduced over 3,200 bills this year on election administration, more than any year since NCSL began counting in 2001.

While the quantity of legislation is a surprise, the content is not. After a record-breaking year of absentee/mail voting, legislators of all stripes set out to fine-tune those voting processes, such as adjusting request and return deadlines and processing timelines for absentee ballots. But the big story has been the partisan divide on absentee/mail voting, with many Republican-led states looking to reverse some decisions made last year due to the pandemic, and some Democratic-led states seeking to codify those temporary changes.

After a record-breaking year of absentee/mail voting, legislators of all stripes set out to fine-tune their voting processes.

Republican legislators in Arkansas, for example, prohibited election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters and clarified who besides the voter can return a voted ballot. Georgia enacted legislation adjusting voter ID requirements for absentee voters and regulating the number and security features of drop boxes.

Democratic legislators also introduced bills relating to drop boxes—requiring that they indeed be provided, with bills enacted in Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey. California chose to continue using all-mail elections, and Massachusetts opted to expand early voting, both for 2021 only.

To be fair, there are exceptions to the partisan tale. Kentucky enacted for the first time three days of early in-person voting and called for an online portal where voters can request an absentee ballot. North Dakota permitted ballot processing to begin three days before Election Day and clarified that an absentee ballot cast by a voter who dies before Election Day can still be counted. And Utah established ballot tracking, so voters can know where their ballots are and whether they’ve been counted.

Some see this year’s mostly partisan bills as the intensification of a trend. “In the last few years, we’ve seen a dramatic divergence between red and blue states about making voting easier,” Maryland Senator Cheryl Kagan (D) says. While last year almost all states scrambled to make absentee voting more widely available, now states are primarily headed in opposite directions, she says. “The question is, will that trend continue or will the courts weigh in? Or will the federal government steer a course correction?”

While absentee/mail voting got the lion’s share of attention last year, states also promoted early in-person voting to let voters avoid potentially long waits in crowded polling places. In West Virginia, which has had early in-person voting for about 20 years, voters can cast their ballots during the two weeks before Election Day. “More and more people are taking advantage of [early voting] every election cycle,” West Virginia Senator Charles Trump (R) says. Early in-person voting avoids reliance on the U.S. Postal Service, as well as the errors that may occur when requesting or processing an absentee ballot, Trump says.

West Virginia is also noted nationwide for having one of the highest rates of military service per capita—and for piloting a phone-based voting system for its military voters that uses blockchain technology and facial recognition. “You want to give people the opportunity to participate—especially people wearing our uniform,” Trump says. “At the same time, you want to make it as secure as possible.”

No one is predicting that we’ll all be voting on our phones or over the internet anytime soon, though. “The issue becomes balancing security and convenience, and at the end of the day, security has to take precedence,” New Mexico Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto (D) says.

“There could be a bank of people in Paraguay—or any number of countries—and if they were to figure out how to hack a state’s system, they could manipulate vote totals as opposed to individual votes” if there were internet-based voting, Ivey-Soto says. Widespread online voting is simply not on the table yet, given the security risks associated with it.

Like Trump, Ivey-Soto is hesitant to adopt all-mail voting because it depends on an organization—the post office—that “we don’t control at the state level, and that’s creating a major vulnerability in our voting process.”

His fellow Democrat, Alaska Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, sees it otherwise. “Adoption of vote by mail and absentee voting is inevitable and inexorable. Similar to how COVID radically normalized—forgive the oxymoron—remote work, COVID also made by-mail voting a new national norm,” he says. “Even prior to COVID, vote by mail was building a head of steam. When I first started closely following electoral politics in the early 2000s, vote by mail was not even a thing, as us millennials would say. Now it’s very much a thing.”

Adoption of vote by mail and absentee voting is inevitable and inexorable. Similar to how COVID radically normalized—forgive the oxymoron—remote work, COVID also made by-mail voting a new national norm. —Alaska Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

With former President Donald Trump’s frequent, baseless denunciations of mail voting, the way forward isn’t as clear to others. “The battle that rages on about absentee ballots is obvious if you see HR1/S1, and all these issues are embedded in it” New Hampshire Representative Barbara Griffin (R) says, referring to the federal bill, passed by the House but blocked in the Senate, that would have required states to provide early in-person voting, no-excuse absentee voting and paper ballots, among dozens of other provisions.

Some lawmakers view the federal legislation as unnecessary. “Not one state has repealed a mail-in ballot option,” Pennsylvania Representative Seth Grove (R) says. “It’s a popular method to vote for Republicans and Democrats.”

Last year, Pennsylvania found itself in the unique position of having enacted no-excuse voting in 2019 with a planned rollout for the 2020 primary—right at the beginning of the pandemic. The Keystone State, along with many others, delayed its primary so that election officials could prepare for the crush of absentee ballots—something that was altogether new. Grove, who chairs the House’s State Government Committee, says that election officials successfully managed the absentee process for both the primary and general elections but his committee still “decided that we should take a look at every single piece of our election code.” In the spring, his committee held 10 informational hearings on every aspect of voting. Why? To “allow our government to function—it all starts with elections.”

How Will We Vote?

As for what’s to come, it’s hard not to think about partisan advantage when election policy is up for debate. Absentee voting and early voting policies tend to have more support from Democrats than Republicans. Now, with Trump decidedly against them, the difference is much wider in 2021 than even three years earlier, according to a report from The Pew Research Center. While in total 63% of those surveyed believe “any voter should have the option to vote early or absentee without having to document a reason,” only 38% of Republicans agreed with that statement—down from 57% in 2018. Support among Democrats remained steady: 84% in 2021 and 83% in 2018.

And partisan effects? “Vote-by-Mail Policy and the 2020 Presidential Election,” an April 2021 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, indicates that more mail voting does not result in more Democratic outcomes and may in fact tilt the results a little to the Republican side. A 2020 study from Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research found no partisan effects of mail voting. Of course, both parties know their states’ rules and craft their get-out-the-vote efforts accordingly.

One lesson from 2020 is just coming to the fore: Local election officials succeeded in pulling off the highest turnout presidential election under some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable—and many benefited from additional funding, whether from the CARES Act or elsewhere. Which for MIT’s Stewart raises the question, “Why are elections living on a threadbare diet in normal times?” States’ decisions about which voting options to offer won’t be decided on policy, partisanship or voter convenience alone. Funding is key to all decisions—but from where? Stewart speculates: “probably some combination of federal, state and local funding.” Last year, private philanthropy came through but, as Stewart notes, “holding a bake sale for democracy, that’s just not the way to run an election.”

Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s director of elections and redistricting, and Amanda Zoch is an NCSL legislative policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

This story was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of State Legislatures magazine.

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