Naturally, a lot of attention is being paid to the ongoing efforts by Republicans in states they govern to restrict voting opportunities. Some are largely reversing accommodations made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while others are aggressively pursuing voter-suppression strategies to weaken Democratic constituencies.
But there are some states — mostly Democratic-governed, but a few purple and even red states as well — that are maintaining 2020 pandemic rules for voting or even expanding access to the ballot. According to the authoritative Brennan Center for Justice, “28 bills with expansive provisions have been signed into law in 14 states. At least 115 bills with expansive provisions are moving in 25 states: 45 have passed at least one chamber, and 70 have had some sort of committee action.”
Five states (including Republican-trifecta states Indiana and Kentucky) have expanded or created early in-person-voting opportunities. Another five states (including Indiana and North Dakota) have maintained liberalized voting-by-mail provisions. Virginia has taken the exemplary step of enacting its own state voting-rights law prohibiting discriminatory practices.
But one mini-trend of particular interest, given the extraordinary resources former president Donald Trump devoted to demonizing “universal voting by mail” during the 2020 election cycle, is that the small number of states actually embracing it is expanding, not contracting. Going into 2020, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington sent mail ballots to all registered voters without some special application requirement. Two other states that adopted this practice provisionally in 2020, Nevada and Vermont, have now made it permanent.
The next big domino likely to fall would be the largest. Voting by mail has become regularly more popular in California, growing from 42 percent of ballots in the general elections of 2006 and 2008 to 65 percent in 2018 and then to 87 percent in 2020 when, as an “emergency” measure, ballots were sent to all registered voters. This provision was extended by the California legislature on a party-line vote to all elections held in 2021 (including the yet-to-be-scheduled gubernatorial recall election), and legislation is pending to make it permanent. Most counties have maintained an in-person voting option even during the pandemic, but the practice could well wither away, particularly given California’s decision in 2019 to offer prepaid envelopes for those voting by mail.
The higher voter turnout traditionally achieved by universal voting by mail states and the absence of credible fraud allegations mean the bipartisan trend toward liberalized mail ballots that existed prior to 2020 will likely continue in jurisdictions that are not actively trying to hold down turnout to maximize partisan advantages (real or simply perceived). Yes, it would be fairer and more rational to adopt national standards for voting and elections, as is contemplated in the For the People Act (S.1) that will be debated in the Senate this week. But it’s good to know all the state-level activity this year isn’t strictly repressive.