2019 Legislative Action on Elections
As we enter a new decade and what promises to be an exciting year on the elections front, it is worth looking back at the changes made to elections policies by legislatures in 2019. Issues such as pre-Election Day voting, voter registration and election security continued to occupy the minds of legislators across the country.
Last year saw an uptick in bills from 2018. In 2018, 2,555 bills were introduced and 336 were enacted. In 2019, 2,954 bills were introduced with 367 enacted, the most since 2011. Forty-six states enacted election legislation in 2019. With elections dominating the news cycle we can expect to see even more action in 2020.
Summary of 2019 Action
Voter registration and pre-Election Day voting measures led the way in 2019. Vote-by-mail continues to gain momentum across the country as well, with Hawaii joining the ranks of states with all-mail voting in 2019.
Not surprisingly, election security was also a focus as states gear up to protect their elections from potential interference in 2020. The purchase of new voting machines in states such as Pennsylvania continue a “back to the future” trend of requiring paper ballots and scanners for tabulation in order to bolster election security.
For complete details on these enactments and many others, please check out NCSL’s new webpage on 2019 election legislation or see NCSL’s election legislation database.
Registration led the way for 2019 election related enactments, with 46 bills passed in 28 states. Automatic voter registration, list maintenance and Election Day registration were all topics addressed by states.
Automatic, or automated, voter registration (AVR) continued to gain steam in 2019, primarily in states with Democratic leadership. AVR typically uses motor vehicle bureaus to register voters electronically, an extension of the role these state offices have played since the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, aka Motor Voter. In 2019, Vermont, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico all enacted legislation codifying AVR.
Four states—Nevada, Hawaii , Maryland and New Mexico—will join 17 others in offering Election Day registration, for a total of 21 states.
As for list maintenance, Arizona will now provide an online option for voters to update their information when they receive follow up notices for purposes of list maintenance. Arkansas will use information from jury selection processes to ensure that registered voters are U.S. citizens.
Pre-Election Day Voting
Absentee voting and early in-person voting are part of a larger movement among states to transition towards pre-Election Day voting. In fact, one way to think of Election Day is that it is the last day to vote.
New Hampshire made it easier for older citizens to vote by absentee ballot. Caregivers are now permitted to deliver voted ballots on behalf of residents of nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Hawaii also made changes to its absentee voting system. While Hawaii of course does not allow deceased people to vote, it will now count absentee votes that have been submitted even if the voter dies prior to Election Day. States are split on this issue, although in practice it is hard to separate a deceased voter’s ballot from the other ballots once its envelope has been removed.
Other states such as Kansas and Virginia are fine-tuning their absentee ballot processes. Kansas and California will now provide absentee voters an opportunity to cure signature discrepancies on absentee ballots rather than the ballots being rejected outright. Virginia enacted a law requiring that an applicant who is line for in-person absentee voting when the polling place closes be allowed to cast a ballot. In addition to the states moving towards more absentee voting, New York will now allow early in-person voting. Delaware will adopt early in-person voting beginning in 2022.
Fifteen bills were passed in 10 states in 2019 on all-mail voting. What some call “vote at home” is quickly becoming an option in states across the country.
Hawaii became the latest state to transition to all-mail elections. New Jersey will employ a slightly different method by establishing a permanent absentee list to allow voters to continue to receive mail ballots once requested unless the voter opts out.
Washington and Oregon, both already all-mail voting states, updated their laws to make the process of mailing in the ballots easier. Washington will now require that the state reimburse counties for the cost of return postage on voted ballots. Oregon took a different approach and will require the state to pay for ballot return envelopes that can be returned by business reply mail.
The recent appropriation by Congress of $425 million to the states under the Help America Vote Act was perhaps the most significant election security development in 2019. This follows a previous appropriation of $380 million in 2018. States rely on this money to update their critical election systems and to secure their election technology. State legislatures, along with the chief election official in each state, will be responsible for determining the use of the funds.
Legislatures enacted 18 bills in 14 states concerning election security in 2019.
Ohio strengthened the security of its elections by creating a Civilian Cyber Security Reserve. Other states took measures to protect the security of their state voter files including Iowa, Indiana and California.
Risk-Limiting Audits, or RLAs, also received attention in multiple states. Arkansas will now require RLAs to be conducted by the State Board of Elections. Indiana established a pilot program for RLAs for certain counties and elections, and Oklahoma will allow its Board of Elections to select counties for RLAs.
Concerns over securing our elections also spurred action regarding voting technology. Fourteen states enacted 15 bills on voting equipment in 2019.
Texas will now require the secretary of state to prescribe specific guidelines for the certification of electronic pollbooks, including requiring the device to display the voter’s original signature. Pennsylvania enacted requirements for the decertification of voting machines, something relatively few states have done. This move follows the statewide shift to paper ballots across all counties.
Other states took steps to ensure they will be ready to update their voting equipment in the future. Hawaii appropriated roughly $790,000 towards a future vote counting system contract. Wyoming created an “Election Readiness Account” to pay for specified expenses in conducting future elections subject to the requirements of the Help America Vote Act, which mandates that states provide a certain percentage of matching funds for federal grants.
Voting Rights of Formerly Incarcerated Citizens
Another long-term trend continued in 2019: earlier restoration of voting for those who have been convicted of a felony. Eight bills were passed in seven states on this topic.
Illinois enacted multiple bills in this area. One bill establishes a program which allows individuals confined in county jails prior to trial to vote. A second bill enacts a nonpartisan peer-led civics program throughout the Illinois’ correctional institutions to teach civics to soon-to-be-released citizens.
Nevada passed a comprehensive bill updating many provisions of their code. The legislation maintains the right to vote for those convicted of a crime but not yet in prison and restores the right to vote upon release from prison. Colorado and New Jersey will now restore the voting rights of individuals earlier in the post-release process. For Colorado, voting rights are restored for those who are on parole, and in New Jersey, those who are on probation or on parole can now vote.
The Electoral College continues to be a hot topic heading into the 2020 election. See the January issue of The Canvass. Four states—Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico and Oregon— joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which began in 2006 and now includes 16 states and the District of Columbia. Also in 2019, the governor of Nevada vetoed legislation to join the compact.
Washington passed a “Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act” in 2019 intended to bind the votes of their presidential electors in the Electoral College. The U.S. Supreme Court is now set to hear a consolidated case this year involving lawsuits brought by Washington and Colorado’s 2016 electors to challenge their states’ ability to bind their votes.
And that’s just the beginning. States continue to involve young people in the election process, as Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland and Virginia now will allow teens to help in polling places. States also are beginning to adopt geographic information systems, or GIS, to improve the accuracy of their elections. For instance, North Carolina is participating with the Census Bureau’s 2020 Voting District Verification Project, and New Jersey and Virginia will have local jurisdictions provide current electoral, jurisdictional and precinct maps to the state, where they’ll be made available to the public. Other notable enactments include Utah’s HCR 16, which established Utah Women’s Voter Registration Day; Washington’s SB 5079, which created a Native American Voting Rights Act; and Texas’ HB1130 allowing “Register to Vote” license plates.
While most folks will be paying close attention to election results this year, we here at NCSL will be keeping our eye on election administration legislation. Please visit NCSL’s Elections Legislation Database.