As COVID-19 went from zero to 60 and life came to a near standstill in 2020, election officials were faced with a slew of policy changes—many temporary—coming from legislatures, governors and chief election officials. In a field where incremental change is the norm, these overnight decrees about how to manage voting at polling places and by mail were, to understate it, a challenge. A predictable response to that year’s many changes was a record number of election-related bill introductions in 2021 and ’22. (Worth noting: The number of enactments remained on par with previous years.)
What about 2023? The ideas below may be coming to a hearing room near you.
This story is part of a State Legislatures News special report examining the hot topics and legislative trends that will dominate state lawmakers’ time in 2023.
Hot Topic—Election Finance
In 2020, an infusion of philanthropic funding provided directly to local election offices rather than to state officials helped ensure that the sudden demand for absentee ballots and all the paper accoutrement associated with them (outer envelopes, inner envelopes, instructions, etc.) could be paid for and that adequate supplies of personal protective equipment were on hand. In the last two years, 21 states made it clear that elections, the foundation of our representative democracy, are a public service that must be paid for with public dollars. That raises the question, of course, of who should pay for elections? In 2023, expect to see lawmakers grappling with election financing. Ballots include local, state and federal races, but mostly, it is local jurisdictions that fund elections. Do states want to follow the money and perhaps split the tab? Would states welcome more federal financial support? Is funding adequate as is?
Hot Topic—Election Officials
While professional election officials were lauded in the aggregate for managing a presidential election during a pandemic, that election also shined a light on who, exactly, plays a role in elections. A handful of states enacted laws in 2021 codifying what happens if an election official doesn’t follow state law; this year, a different handful enacted laws adding protections for local election officials who face doxing, trolling, harassment or threats on social media or in person. In 2023, expect more of the same—and perhaps tuneups to laws regulating what poll watchers can see and do. These may be the typical partisan poll watchers who have been part of the election ecosystem for over 100 years, or they may be the less common nonpartisan election observers who aim to provide feedback for continuous improvement. Think academics and international observers.
Hot Topic—Tracking Voters
Forever and a day, job one in the elections world has been identifying who can vote; that’s why voter registration was developed over 100 years ago. In the 2010s, state legislatures—tasked in Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution with prescribing the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives”—focused mostly on registration and voter ID. The legislative options are many: online voter registration, same-day registration, automated registration, voter ID requirements and exemptions, voter verification for absentee voting and more. Nationwide, one word covers all these policies: more. The number of states with each of these policies just keeps climbing. For 2023, expect still more. More bills on the use of technology to improve voter registration. More bills on maintaining voter rolls since voters rarely tell their local officials when they move away. More bills to permit data sharing within states for jury lists and prison records and with federal or intrastate data sources. And more bills fine-tuning voter ID requirements and exemptions.
The holy grail of election administration is to count each vote accurately and only once while preventing ineligible votes from being cast. Old-school approaches to accuracy include lots of list-making, process-tracking and double-checking. In recent years, states have deployed technology to ensure accuracy. GIS can assign every voter to the right precinct and district more accurately than list-based systems. Improving voter-facing communications from election officials means voters don’t have to rely on the sometimes imprecise information coming from their Instagram feeds. Revisiting state certification standards for voting equipment and making it a crime to tamper with election equipment add safeguards. Investing in cybersecurity reduces the risk of interference. And considering statutorily defined post-election audits may quell worries.
For more information, see these NCSL elections and redistricting resources: