Besides being agonizingly close, the presidential contest of 2000 illuminated flaws in our election system and made election administration a priority issue in legislatures across the country.
“2000 woke up the world to election administration issues,” says Ben Ginsberg, former co-chair of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) and GOP elections law expert extraordinaire.
In fact, the presidential elections of 2000 and last year put election administration front of mind for lawmakers and the public alike. But the issues at hand couldn’t be more different.
As Bob Bauer, co-chair of the PCEA and equally distinguished expert from the Democratic side, explains, most partisan disagreement in the 2000 contest focused on how to resolve who won the presidential election, George W. Bush or Al Gore. In 2020, though, “the battle [is] right at the source—about how the rules are drawn, the role of courts in changing the rules, the role of state executive officials in implementing the rules. It’s a very different fight.”
Indeed, “fight” is an apt word. One of the biggest takeaways from our conversation with these election veterans is that election-related litigation has been on the rise since 2000. (We wrote about that in the September 2020 Canvass, and you can check out the case tracker here.)
Other notable changes? Election administration has become more professionalized, and voters have more options and access than ever before. “Democrats and Republicans were under pressure from the voters to modernize,” Bauer says. “Americans are used to convenience.”
And that change, more than any other, is borne out by the numbers. Between 2000 and 2020, voting options—all-mail voting, no-excuse absentee voting, early in-person voting—have become more widespread. Other policies, like voter registration, have adapted to the 21st century with the advent of online registration and the marked increase in same-day registration. Read on for the details of policy choices that have seen big changes in the last 20 years.
2000: One state (Oregon)
2020: Five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington)
In 1998, Oregon became the first state to enact all-mail elections when voters approved a citizen initiative requiring the state to mail ballots to all registered voters. The Beaver State implemented the law in 2000. By 2020, however, four more states joined Oregon in conducting elections mostly by mail. In 2012, Utah permitted jurisdictions to choose whether to conduct elections by mail, and all Utah counties did so by 2019. Washington implemented all-mail elections in 2012, Colorado in 2014, and Hawaii in 2020.
When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted elections across the country, four states (California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont) and the District of Columbia chose to run elections entirely by mail—for 2020 only. Now that they’ve had a trial run, will any of those states make the shift permanent? It’s too early in the 2021 legislative sessions to know but seeing five grow to six or seven isn’t an impossibility this year.
For more information, see the “All-Mail Elections” section of NCSL’s Voting Outside the Polling Place report.
No-Excuse Absentee Voting
2000: 22 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon [all-mail elections], Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming)
2020: 34 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado [all-mail elections], Florida, Georgia, Hawaii [all-mail elections], Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon [all-mail elections], Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah [all-mail elections], Vermont, Virginia, Washington [all-mail elections], Wisconsin and Wyoming)
Since the creation of absentee voting during the Civil War, voters needed to supply an excuse—away from home, ill, etc.—to receive an absentee ballot. That changed in the 1980s, when California became the first state to allow voters to request an absentee ballot without a reason, and by 2000 nearly half of the states had followed suit and enacted no-excuse absentee voting.
Now, voters in over two-thirds of the states can request an absentee ballot without providing any reason at all. Virginia joined this group most recently, enacting no-excuse absentee voting in early 2020.
For more information, see the table of states with no-excuse absentee voting from NCSL’s Voting Outside the Polling Place report.
Early In-Person Voting
2000: 22 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont)
2020: 43 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado [all-mail elections], Florida, Georgia, Hawaii [all-mail elections], Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon [all-mail elections], Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah [all-mail elections], Vermont, Virginia, Washington[all-mail elections], West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming)
Early voting has been around since the very first presidential election, when, by necessity, elections were conducted over a season, rather than on a single Election Day. Texas, however, pioneered what we think of when we say “early voting”—in-person voting at a polling place during an established period of time prior to the designated Election Day. The Lone Star State implemented the voting option in 1991, and legislatures around the nation quickly followed its lead. By 2000, 22 states offered early in-person voting.
Interest in early voting has continued to grow, with 43 states having adopted early voting periods as of 2020. And that number will increase to 44 soon when Delaware’s early voting law goes into effect in 2022.
For more information, see NCSL’s Early Voting webpage.
Voter Identification Requirements
2000: 13 states (Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia)
2020: 34 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin)
Requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls has become much more widespread since 2000. Then, 13 states had voter identification requirements—by 2020, the number had tripled.
NCSL categorizes voter identification requirements by type (photo and non-photo) and options for alternatives (strict and non-strict). When states first establish voter identification requirements, they often do so with a non-photo, non-strict law, though there is a trend toward strengthening those laws once they’re in place. Of the 21 states that started with non-photo, non-strict requirements, eight have strengthened their laws. That number used to be nine, but in 2020 Virginia returned to a non-photo, non-strict requirement and became one of just a few states to eased their ID requirements. Through the last decade, courts have also stayed busy parsing whether voter identification laws do or do not burden voters unduly.
For more information, see NCSL’s Voter Identification Requirements webpage.
Election Day (Same-Day) Voter Registration
2000: Six states (Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming)
2020: 21 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming)
In 2000, six states allowed any qualified individual to both register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, which may be Election Day or a different day during the early voting period. Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin were the first states to allow this practice, doing so in the 1970s. More states established same-day voter registration in the 1990s and 2000s (the 1993 National Voter Registration Act required states to offer voter registration at DMVs, unless the state had same-day registration), but it wasn’t until the 2010s when the number shot up to nearly half of all states. Nevada and New Mexico are the most recent additions to this group—both enacted same-day voter registration in 2019, though the Land of Enchantment plans to implement the policy in stages over several years.
For more information, see NCSL’s Same-Day Voter Registration webpage.
Online Voter Registration
2000: No states
2020: 40 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin)
Online voter registration didn’t exist in 2000, and the first state to implement a paperless voter registration option—Arizona—did so in 2002. Washington followed in 2008 and since then, online voter registration has essentially swept the nation, going from zero states to 40 in under two decades. In fact, most of the implementation has happened in just the past decade.
Most states have enacted specific legislation to authorize online voter registration, and New Jersey did so most recently in January 2020. Some states, however, have created online voter registration systems under existing authority, as North Carolina did in 2020. Some states may opt to pass legislation after the fact that specifically authorizes the system, as Minnesota did in 2014.
For more information, see NCSL’s Online Voter Registration webpage.
Membership in the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC)
2000: No states (ERIC not yet established)
2020: 30 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin)
ERIC was founded in 2012 by seven states—Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Washington—with the goal of modernizing voter registration records. This compact among states helps states improve the accuracy of their voter rolls by matching records against those of other states and expanding access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.
Texas was the most recent state to join, doing so in March 2020.
For more information, see NCSL’s Voter List Accuracy webpage and the official ERIC website.
2000: No states
2020: Required in three states (Colorado, Rhode Island and Virginia)
While 38 states and the District of Columbia ask for postelection audits of some kind to test that vote tabulations are correct, a risk-limiting audit (RLA) is a new option that has received growing interest from election officials and legislators over the past few years. An RLA is an incremental audit system designed to limit the risk that a contest is certified with the wrong winner. The larger the margin of victory, the fewer ballots need to be reviewed—and vice versa.
Colorado was the first state to establish RLAs in statute in 2009, though it took until 2017 to work out the kinks and run its first RLA. Rhode Island and Virginia followed in 2017. Several states are testing the RLA waters now: Georgia, Indiana and Nevada have statutory pilot programs, with Nevada’s becoming required statewide in 2022. Michigan and New Jersey have administrative pilot programs, and four states—California, Ohio, Oregon and Washington—make RLAs optional.
For more information, see NCSL’s Risk-Limiting Audits webpage.
What Does the Future Hold?
There’s no doubt that these shifts in election policies were enacted to help voters and increase election efficiency, accuracy and security. It’s also true that many changes have been adopted with bipartisan support. Yet many believe that political parties push for the policies that conventional wisdom says help them and hinder their opponents.
But Ginsberg, the GOP elections expert, asked us to reconsider that logic in light of the 2020 election. “Republicans should take away that they actually can do well in high turnout elections,” he says. “And Democrats should realize that they won states—at least on the presidential level—with some of the strictest voter ID laws… There should be a reevaluation by both parties and people looking at election laws to see how some of the dogma of both parties was refuted in this election.”
Food for thought.
Amanda Zoch is an NCSL policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.