WASHINGTON — Nearly seven of every 10 voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2020. Republicans are moving to make it harder for that to happen again, potentially affecting the voting preferences of millions of Americans.
The GOP's campaign to place new restrictions on mail-in and early voting in certain states will force voters to contend with new rules on what have quickly become popular and proven methods of casting ballots.
Though it is difficult to forecast how exactly the changes will affect voter turnout in the years ahead, critics argue that the proposals target a voting method that has had growing appeal for both Democrats and Republicans, and will add additional and needless bureaucratic hurdles to casting ballots before Election Day.
In just Georgia and Iowa, states where early voting rollbacks already have been signed into law, more than 5 million voters used absentee or early in-person voting last fall. Restrictive early voting bills also are advancing in other politically important states where Republicans are in control, including Arizona, Florida and Texas. Altogether, nearly 27 million voters in those five states cast ballots in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
“They’re trying to make it a hassle to vote,” said Dixie Davis, a 33-year-old seamstress in Fort Worth, Texas, who voted early in the last election. “I feel like voting should be convenient — it’s like the most basic service a government should provide in a democratic society.”
The explosion of both early and mail voting in the 2020 election came after state officials across the country relaxed rules around who could cast ballots before Election Day in a one-time effort to avoid coronavirus spread at crowded polling places. Officials and experts have said the result was one of the smoothest elections in recent memory, without any of the widespread fraud alleged by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
In response, Republican lawmakers in a number of states have opted against making those changes permanent or expanding advance voting options. They instead have introduced a wave of new restrictions, arguing that they are trying to prevent fraudulent voting and restore public confidence in elections.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a policy group that advocates for increased voting access, has tallied more than 350 pieces of restrictive legislation this year, many aimed at shortening early voting periods and imposing new requirements for mail-in voting. In addition to the new laws in Georgia and Iowa, at least 28 bills to restrict mail and absentee voting are moving in 18 states, according to the Brennan Center.
“The efforts to restrict voting access are not based on the policies that voters actually want,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center. “Voters like mail voting, voters like convenience, voters like early voting, so lawmakers are not delivering on requests for these restrictions.”
The massive early voting surge in 2020, when 111.5 million voters cast ballots in advance, can't be compared to previous elections because of the changes to procedures in many states prompted by the pandemic. Those states expanded early voting but did not make the changes permanent.
But even before last year, absentee and early in-person voting had been growing for both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, it's been increasing every year since 2008, in both midterm and general elections, according to Associated Press election research. During the 2016 presidential contest, nearly 59 million people voted before Election Day. (Last year’s turnout data includes unofficial results from New York, Montana and Michigan).
In Georgia, the new law reduces the amount of time voters can request absentee ballots from 180 days before an election to 78 days; requires an ID number to vote absentee; prohibits local election officials from sending voters absentee ballot applications unless requested and limits the number of ballot drop boxes a county can have.
It does mandate two Saturdays of early voting ahead of general elections, when only one had been mandatory, and leaves two Sundays as optional. Republicans at one time had proposed limiting early voting on Sundays, which critics argued was an attack on a get-out-the-vote initiative organized by Black churches called “Souls to the Polls.”
In 2020, about 1.3 million Georgia voters cast mail ballots and around 2.7 million voted early in-person. President Joe Biden narrowly won the state by 12,000 votes, with the heavily populated and Democratic-leaning counties in the Atlanta area casting many votes before Election Day. In 2016, when Trump took the state, roughly 2.4 million voters cast ballots ahead of Election Day.
“I know that it is going to obstruct the voting patterns of many people, especially seniors, because people were relying on voting absentee and now they're making it more difficult,” said Georgia state Sen. Donzella James, a Democrat who represents parts of Atlanta. “It’s not going to hurt just Democrats; it’s going to hurt the whole voting process and make it harder to vote.”
A similar dynamic is underway in Iowa, where a new law shortens the early voting period from 29 days to 20 days, requires most mail ballots to be received by Election Day and forbids county election officials from sending absentee ballot request forms unless requested.
“When you're cramming everything into such a small window, of course it's going to be harder on us,” said Travis Weipert, the auditor of Iowa's Johnson County. “If the system is working, what are you trying to fix?”
More than 1 million Iowans cast absentee ballots before Election Day in 2020, after the state mailed absentee applications to all registered voters. Some counties opened more early voting sites and allowed early drive-thru voting to reduce lines and promote social distancing. In 2016, the figure was around 650,000, about 40% of the total vote. Trump won the state handily in both 2016 and last year.
Restrictions also are being considered in other politically important states.
In Arizona, Republicans are behind measures to bar election officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballots and to establish new requirements to vote absentee, after about 3 million people cast ballots before the past election. In Florida, where around 9 million people voted before Election Day last year, Republicans have proposed requiring 24-hour surveillance of ballot drop boxes and making voters provide identification to submit a ballot at a drop box.
Nearly 10 million voters last year cast advance ballots in Texas, where Republicans came out ahead in the presidential race and all statewide offices, and also held control of the state Legislature. Nevertheless, the GOP is pushing legislation that would make it a crime for local election officials to send mail ballot applications to voters who didn’t ask for them.
Studies have shown that increased mail-in voting does not grant a partisan advantage. It is difficult to determine what level of restriction would turn a person off from voting, though critics of the proposals argue that lawmakers should be trying to encourage voting rather than tightening rules around popular methods.
“We shouldn’t be looking at this through the partisan lens. We should just be looking at it through the lens of increasing participation,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. “If you don’t have a good reason to make voting hard, you ought not to. You ought to be making voting easier.”