WASHINGTON — The Covid-19 pandemic is receding in America. But some of the changes it prompted in American elections are here to stay.
A handful of states are locking in voting-rights expansions that they piloted in 2020, extending early voting and absentee balloting programs even as other states add restrictions to voting.
Two states that switched during the pandemic to universal mail voting — mailing ballots to all active registered voters in each election — will now continue that practice permanently, for at least general elections: Nevada and Vermont. Several other states are moving to allow no-excuse mail voting permanently, after allowing it temporarily while Covid-19 raged in 2020.
And while many of the state-level expansions of voting programs are happening in blue states, some red states have made changes as well. Kentucky, where Republicans have legislative supermajorities and former President Donald Trump won the presidential contest by 25 points in 2020, codified in-person early voting for the first time this year.
The move came after voters embraced an emergency version of the program during the pandemic — and it bucks a trend that has seen some red states throw up more voting restrictions in 2021, in the wake of Trump’s defeat.
“We’re the only Republican state, the only conservative state, the only red state — however you want to put it — certainly the only state with a Republican Legislature that has made voting easier this year,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican. “I’m really proud of that.”
Altogether, the changes mean that millions more Americans will receive mail ballots in future elections, and the number could balloon even more if backers in California successfully switch the state to a universal mail voting system. In total, seven states will now have largely mail-based election systems with the two newest additions joining Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
“The reason we did it is because during the pandemic we made the change — obviously, from the safety and the health viewpoint and whatnot — and it worked,” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said in an interview. The bill, which passed on party lines, will send ballots to voters for general and primary elections, unless they opt out.
The Kentucky law, which the GOP-controlled Legislature passed with bipartisan support before Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed it, adds three days of in-person early voting in the state and allows for counties to establish “voting centers” — where any voters can go to vote, instead of having to vote at a single local precinct — among other changes.
Kentucky voters still need an excuse to vote by mail, which will keep mail absentee voting rates low. Other Republican-controlled states that already offered early in-person voting have also made modest expansions to the practice, too. Soon after Adams’ interview, Louisiana — which like Kentucky has a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor — passed a law adding more early voting days for presidential elections. Earlier this year, Oklahoma and Indiana both tacked on an additional day of early voting in some situations, while Georgia’s controversial elections law included a provision that will lead to more early-voting opportunities in smaller counties, matching what larger counties already offered.
“A bipartisan approach to election reform is best, because it gets you — I think — number one, a better product. And number two, it’s a better look,” Adams said. “People are going to be suspicious when the other side is writing the election rules and trying to force them through on a party-line vote,” Adams continued, citing efforts by some state Republicans as well as federal Democrats.
Federal Democrats’ broad elections and ethics bill, the “For the People Act,” is likely to fail a procedural vote in the Senate on Tuesday.
California could be the next state to make major voting changes, after every active registered voter in the state was mailed a ballot during the 2020 election due to the pandemic. After temporarily expanding mail elections through this year, which would include the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, lawmakers are driving to make the changes permanent. “We’re already moving in this direction and have the processes in place,” said Democratic state Assemblymember Marc Berman, who is leading the push. (California counties can already opt into mailing all voters a ballot.)
Much of the rest of the movement is coming in the Northeast. The biggest shift came in Vermont, which will now send all active, registered voters mail ballots for general elections. Republican Gov. Phil Scott even urged lawmakers to go further and extend the policy to primaries and local elections when he signed the bill.
“I’m signing this bill because I believe making sure voting is easy and accessible, and increasing voter participation, is important,” Scott said in a statement when he signed the bill. “Having said that, we should not limit this expansion of access to general elections alone, which already have the highest voter turnout.”
Outside of Vermont, there is a broader drive in the Northeast to allow voters to cast ballots by mail without needing an excuse, after most states temporarily allowed for as much during the pandemic.
No-excuse absentee voting has been in broad use in the West, Midwest and along the country’s Southeastern coast. But liberal governors and legislators in the Northeast have lagged behind, even as federal Democrats have agitated for changes.
New Yorkers will vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would effectively allow for no-excuse absentee voting in the state, after the state functionally allowed for it during the 2020 elections. A second amendment vote in front of voters will allow for same-day voter registration. The process to get both amendments on the ballot began in 2019, before the pandemic.
Connecticut also kicked off a process this year for a constitutional amendment on no-excuse mail voting, with both chambers passing a resolution for the first time. But because it failed to get supermajority support in the state House, after most Republicans there voted against it, the Legislature will have to pass the resolution again during their 2023 session to put it on the ballot in 2024.
Massachusetts is also moving ahead toward having mail voting for all its voters after adopting it during the pandemic. The state House tacked an eleventh-hour provision on to a supplemental budget that would permanently extend mail voting in the state, and there is a separate constitutional amendment being considered that would allow for no-excuse absentee voting. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has previously voiced support for allowing any voter to request a mail ballot.
Two other Northeastern states also currently don’t have no-excuse absentee voting: New Hampshire and Delaware. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, vetoed Democratic-led efforts in 2020 to turn the state into a no-excuse state, and Republicans flipped both of the state legislative chambers in 2020. State Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat who often clashes with the rest of his party on voting rights, also opposes no-excuse mail voting.
And Delaware has also hit a significant roadblock. After the Democratic-controlled state Legislature passed a measure in 2019 setting up for a constitutional amendment that would clear the path for it, the effort sputtered this year after Republicans who previously backed it changed their minds. (A two-thirds majority is needed, which Democrats do not have on their own.)
“It already had bipartisan support — overwhelming bipartisan support, really,” said Morgan Keller of the Delaware ACLU. “Now, all of a sudden, it’s changed because of the national narrative.”