During the waning days of the presidential election, Vermont Democratic state Sen. Cheryl Hooker got a desperate call from one of her constituents: The woman said she had forgotten to sign her name on the absentee ballot, it had been rejected by the town clerk, and she couldn’t fix it.
This was a familiar story around the country, as the pandemic forced voters and election administrators to take a crash course in mail-in voting.
“People make mistakes,” said Hooker, who couldn’t help her constituent at the time. “They don’t sign the outside envelope, or they forget to put their name on it. Their vote would not count.”
When Vermont’s legislative session began earlier this year, Hooker introduced a measure that would create a process for voters to “cure” signatures or other technical mistakes on mail-in ballots. Lawmakers added provisions that would allow the state to mail ballots to every active voter before general elections. The bill passed the state Senate, is on track to pass the state House, according to Hooker, and has support from Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
The national conversation around voting rights this year has focused on new ballot restrictions in states such as Arizona and Georgia. Less noticed have been efforts by states such as Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont and Virginia to expand voting by mail, early voting and voter registration. Lawmakers, mostly in heavily Democratic states, aim to loosen restrictions on the voting process, hoping to continue the trend of record turnout that most states saw last year.
Lawmakers in 47 states have introduced nearly 850 bills to expand early voting, restore voting rights for people with felony convictions and set up automatic voter registration, among other measures, according to a late March count by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. This is more than twice the number of restrictive voting bills introduced this session.
By and large, bills to expand mail-in voting and voter registration are passing in states that have Democratic legislative majorities and Democratic governors, said Sylvia Albert, the national voting and elections director for Common Cause, a national nonprofit that favors expanded voting options and has joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn Georgia’s new restrictions. But some measures to expand early voting have bipartisan support and are moving in heavily Republican states.
In Kentucky, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bipartisan measure this session that will establish a three-day early voting period, add a process for correcting signature mistakes on absentee ballots and create an online portal for voters to request absentee ballots. Kentucky did not have early voting prior to the pandemic. The measure also will allow counties to offer regional voting centers in place of neighborhood polling places.
There are similar, bipartisan measures to expand early, in-person voting in Indiana and Oklahoma as well. Both chambers of the Indiana legislature passed the bill, while the Oklahoma measure remains in committee.
For “integrity hawks” such as Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, the Kentucky measure did enough to satisfy security concerns. While he supported this “well-crafted compromise,” he said he would not support the expansion of voting by mail in the Bluegrass State.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed the legislation last week. Beshear worked with Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams to expand voting options for Kentuckians during the pandemic.
In Maryland, where Democrats hold a large majority in the legislature but Gov. Larry Hogan is a Republican, legislative leaders “came into the legislative session with the goal to expand the right to vote, reduce barriers and expand access to the ballot,” said Maryland Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Democrat who authored three House-passed voting bills.
Her bills would require equitable placement of ballot drop boxes near public transportation and communities of color, establish a list of voters who want to receive mail-in ballots for every election and restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies who have served their sentences. The latter bill also would require drop boxes in jails and prisons for incarcerated people serving time for misdemeanor crimes.
“A lot of this has to do with the recent election,” Wilkins said. “It shook us. We had to make a lot of changes to make sure people could vote.”
In many places, the pandemic forced election officials to expand voting options. Risking long lines or crowded polling places on Election Day was too dangerous. Some states offered early voting for the first time. More dropped excuse requirements to mail in a ballot. Others sent every registered voter a mail-in ballot.
“COVID showed us the barriers, but it also showed us the potential that we have,” said Delaware state Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, a Democrat who authored a bill to implement automatic voter registration. The state Senate passed the legislation, which is now advancing in the state House. “It showed us the ways that we could make voting easier and more secure, and how we can reach more people.”
State lawmakers want to codify many of last year’s emergency election policies so they are in place for future elections.
In Virginia, state Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat, successfully shepherded legislation through the House of Delegates that would permanently require ballot drop boxes, offer prepaid postage on mail-in ballots and add a process for voters to fix their absentee ballots. The measure also would allow counties to process their absentee ballots earlier to avoid delays in reporting results. It has advanced out of committee in the state Senate.
“What you’re seeing is a state stepping up to show how you can simultaneously expand access to the ballot,” VanValkenburg said, “while also having an election that runs smoothly and securely.”
For many lawmakers, 2020 was the first time they took a close look at their state’s election administration, said Lucille Wenegieme, director of communications and public relations for the National Vote at Home Institute, a leading advocacy group for mail-in voting. This, in part, explains the large volume of bills, she said.
“People are looking at a system that they never looked that hard at before,” she said, “and they’re thinking, ‘Where are the gaps that need to be filled?’”
Many of these bills have traction and are moving through legislatures. More than 110 bills are actively being considered in committees and on chamber floors in at least 31 states, according to the Brennan Center. Around 10 already have been signed into law.
In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy late last month signed into law a measure that allows nine days of early voting. The bill had a Republican co-sponsor, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce. Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed Democratic attempts to allow early voting in 2013 and 2015.
“Given the national context, given the response that New Jersey and other states had to do when it came to COVID and the presidential election, there was pretty good momentum to get this done,” said Democratic Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, the bill’s author.
Still, Republican opposition to some of these measures remains fierce. The false belief among three-quarters of Republican voters that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is a driving factor for GOP opposition to many of these bills.
In Nevada, the Democratic-controlled legislature is considering a measure that would send all active voters a mail-in ballot. Republicans during a recent committee hearing pointed to their constituents’ concerns about widespread voter fraud as reason to oppose the measure.
Even though those concerns are “not based in reality, they’re real,” said Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, a Democrat.
“I really can’t defend an allegation that’s just not true,” he said. “We have to continue to rely on our election officials, who have confirmed no systemic fraud.”
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, says he is disconcerted by efforts in other states to narrow the reasons people can vote by mail, curb early voting and eliminate drop boxes. The myth of widespread voter fraud has been disproven by most election experts, but it is still being used in other states to add barriers to the ballot box.
Out of more than 350,000 votes cast in his state, there was one actionable example of voter fraud during the presidential election, Condos said. One person voted by mail and — to prove a point to his friends — showed up on Election Day to cast an additional ballot in-person. The latter ballot was blank, but his stunt was still illegal and he got caught. Condos said the story shows voter fraud is rare and there are safeguards.
“Everyone’s worried about voter fraud,” he said. “The true voter fraud in this country is denying any eligible American to cast a ballot.”