Voting used to be simple. A large majority of us would wake up on Election Day, go to our local polling place and cast our ballot. Our biggest challenges were getting there and deciding which candidates to choose.
And then came COVID-19.
America went into a virtual lockdown some eight months before the 2020 presidential election, and as the primaries progressed and the national election approached, voters became increasingly concerned about the safety of in-person voting.
In response, lawmakers enacted measures that greatly expanded the ability of citizens to vote without going to a polling place. Excuses for casting absentee ballots were waived, more drop boxes were added, and some jurisdictions even provided drive-through voting. In addition, early voting hours were added to avoid forcing voters to wait in long lines on Election Day.
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But in the months that followed the election, something else surfaced: unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud. And so certain state legislators got busy again. Some voted to require residents to clear new hurdles before voting, in an effort, lawmakers claimed, to increase security. These laws include asking for more identification at the polls or on absentee ballots and applications, increased scrutiny of registration lists, cutting back on early voting hours and drop boxes, and making it more difficult to vote by mail.
At the same time, other states saw the evolving election dynamics as a positive development, and so they passed new laws to make permanent changes to make it easier to vote.
The result of all these efforts: unprecedented differences between states in how residents can vote.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the New York University School of Law project that tracks election law changes, as of this past January, 19 states had passed 33 laws since the 2020 election that the center says restrict voting access. Over the same time, 25 states adopted 62 measures that make it easier to vote.
The bottom line: How much will these new laws actually affect citizens’ ability to vote, and will they affect how many people cast their ballots in this November’s highly important midterm elections?
Your path forward
Experts doubt these measures will have a significant impact on turnout this November in many states, but new restrictions could complicate voters’ ability to successfully cast their ballots. Election advocates stress that voters need to check out what, if any, changes have been made in their state.
“One of the best pieces of advice, I think overall, is to make a plan to vote,” says Justin Grimmer, codirector of the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford University. The plan, Grimmer says, should include knowing where your polling place is, how you are going to get there, whether the site is accessible for people with mobility issues, and whether your state has identification requirements.
If you want to vote from home, check the absentee voting rules in your state. You’ll need to know how to apply for an absentee ballot, whether any forms of identification need to be included with the returned ballot, whether and where your signature is required, the proper way to submit your ballot, and whether a witness signature will be required.
“And then, finally, as they’re making this plan, I want to encourage them to check on their registration,” Grimmer says. Each state has a different process to verify you are registered; go to your state’s voting website to find out the procedure.
Not currently registered? When voters need to register varies by state, with many requiring registration 30 days before an election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states will allow voters to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballot.
The politics of voting
The rush to change voting rules has been met with aggressive media coverage and the usual partisan rancor. Experts acknowledge that more attention has been paid to laws that seem to restrict voter access than to those that expand it, but note there’s a legitimate reason for that: Restrictive laws are the ones more likely to affect people’s ability to vote.
“We absolutely need to make sure that our elections are fair and fraud isn’t occurring,” says Nancy Martorano Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton. “But we also need to find ways to make it easier to cast ballots, because the whole system rests on citizens participating. That’s the primary way in which citizens give their consent to be governed — by voting.”
Miller said the corrupt political machines in the 1890s gave birth to many of the laws that all these years later govern voter registration, mandate a secret ballot and determine how to verify that the person who is casting a ballot is, indeed, that person. She adds that it’s too soon to tell if any of the voting laws that have been put in place since 2020 — whether restrictive or expansive — will have any impact on turnout in 2022 and beyond.
AARP’s 2022 voter engagement campaign, Our Voices Decide, is dedicated to helping older voters navigate this new election landscape. In some states, the organization has worked with state lawmakers to push for measures that expand — not restrict — a citizen’s ability to cast a ballot. “As part of our mission to empower Americans 50-plus, AARP has long advocated for fair and straightforward election procedures,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer. “Older Americans must be able to freely, easily and safely exercise their constitutional right to vote. At the same time, we are working to ensure that our elections are free from fraud and abuse.”
AARP has produced election guides for all 50 states, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that voters can consult to view the election rules where they live.
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The consensus among experts is that Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas have adopted measures that could most restrict people’s ability to vote.
- Arizona’s new rules make it easier for election officials to purge people from the voting rolls, including a provision that would remove someone from the early voter list if he or she doesn’t consistently vote early. Individuals are also removed from the early voter list if they fail to vote in two consecutive elections. Arizona has also passed a law requiring people to show proof of citizenship to vote. The proof must be a passport, birth certificate, naturalization certificate or tribal card. This rule has come under considerable criticism, and its implementation may be postponed until after the 2022 election. There will also be an initiative on the November ballot to increase ID requirements for mail ballots and in-person voting.
- Florida now requires a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number to request an absentee ballot and to make a registration change, such as updating an address. Absentee ballot applications require strict signature matches, and voters can now only request absentee ballots in person, with a written request or by phone. The state also has cut back on the use of drop boxes. And instead of voters being able to drop off their ballots 24/7, the boxes will now be monitored by election officials and can only be used during voting hours.
- Georgia’s new election law has probably gotten most of the national attention, especially the provision that bans people from providing food or water to voters in line. But other elements that could affect people’s ability to vote include a significant reduction in drop boxes, a requirement that mail ballot signatures match a person’s signature from when he or she registered, that one must show a driver’s license, state ID number or the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number, and date of birth. The state also banned mobile polling places unless the governor declares a disaster in the state.
- Texas law adds identification requirements for mail voting, including one that received much attention leading up to the March 1 Texas primary, the first in the nation in this election cycle. This rule requires voters to put their Social Security or driver’s license number on their absentee ballot application. And that number must match the one they used when they registered to vote. This could be especially problematic for older voters who registered to vote decades ago and cannot remember which number they used or who may have registered before any identification numbers were required. The new Texas law also bans overnight and drive-through voting.
As with the laws that could restrict access to voting, most of the measures that experts say have the potential to make it easier to vote center on rules governing mail voting and early voting.
- California, Nevada and Vermont joined Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington in moving to all-mail elections. That means that in these states, all registered voters will automatically receive a ballot in the mail. Nebraska and North Dakota are allowing certain individual counties to conduct all-mail elections.
- Connecticut, New York and Washington expanded voting rights to people with past felony convictions.
- Connecticut and Delaware enacted laws providing for automatic voter registration (AVR), while Illinois, Maine, Nevada and New York expanded their existing AVR laws.
- Connecticut also passed a law extending the ability of caregivers and commuters to cast an absentee ballot. A constitutional amendment would be required to enact complete no-excuse absentee balloting (the existing law requires voters to provide a recognized excuse to get an absentee ballot).
- Illinois made permanent a pandemic-enacted policy that allows curbside voting and drop boxes.
- Massachusetts expanded no-excuse early and mail voting.
Tips for voting
Here are some ways to help you make sure you can successfully cast your ballot in upcoming primary or midterm votes. In addition, AARP is regularly updating its online voter guides, so you can connect with your state’s information.
- Monitor. Each state has a board of elections website that often is your gateway to all the voting information you need. Bookmark the page and check occasionally to see if voting rules or dates have changed. One easy way to find your state’s site is via usa.gov/election-office.
- Verify. Check with your state to make sure your voter registration is up to date. The National Association of Secretaries of State provides a direct link to the proper page on each state’s voter website for checking whether your registration is current. If not yet registered, you can find the deadlines there; usually, it’s no more than 30 days before the election.
- Gather documents. Check with your state election website to determine whether you need to show identification at the polling place — and what kind. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a web page that outlines the voter ID laws for each state.
- Voting early? Investigate. Check with your state election website to see if the rules governing absentee or mail-in ballots have changed: The usa.gov/absentee-voting site outlines how these forms of voting work. Also check what, if any, forms of ID need to accompany your absentee ballot, and make sure you sign your ballot where indicated.
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.