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The Truth About Voting Laws

Yes, some states have tightened their rules since 2020, but many others have made it easier to cast a ballot. What to expect in November.


spinner image A voter on a bicycle ride drops their ballot into a ballot drop-off box
MICHAEL CIAGLO/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

We may all get the chance to vote for president of the United States in November, but how we vote, where we vote and how we prove we’re eligible to cast our ballot will depend on where we live. There’s a good chance that the rules of the road in your state have changed since the last time you voted for the nation’s chief executive.

The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to run our elections. The Founding Fathers set out some basic ground rules, including the terms of the president and members of the House of Representatives and Senate. The Constitution mandates that people be at least a certain age to run for office and that they be born in the U.S. if they run for president or vice president (members of Congress can be naturalized citizens). And thanks to the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, you have to be 18 and a U.S. citizen to vote.

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States set the rules for everything else, from absentee voting to early voting to whether you need to show an ID to cast your ballot. More than at any other time in history, the rules that govern our elections have been changing. Since the 2020 election, at least 60 laws have been passed in 27 states that could make it harder to vote, and at least 138 enacted in 36 states and Washington, D.C., are designed to make it easier for voters to cast their ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Another giant change: We no longer collectively elect a president or representative or senator on a single day. Millions of Americans will have already voted by the time polls open on Nov. 5, Election Day 2024, because of laws that initiated or expanded early voting as well as voting by absentee or mail ballot.

Older voters need options

Older Americans turn out to vote in larger numbers than any other age group, and election law changes could disproportionately affect them, advocates and election experts say. In the 2020 presidential election, nearly 66 percent of eligible voters ages 45 to 64 voted, as did 72 percent of those 65 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compared with 48 percent of eligible voters ages 18 to 24.

AARP and the 2024 Elections

AARP is nonpartisan, so we do not endorse any political party or candidate, be it at the local, state or federal level. Nor have we ever given contributions to a candidate or party. But we do work hard to make sure all older Americans have the access, tools and information they need to vote. 

ONGOING COVERAGE: Get frequently updated news, information, resources and tools related to the 2024 elections at aarp.org/vote.

HOW TO VOTE IN YOUR STATE: Learn more about absentee and early voting, ID requirements and registration in all 50 states.

ISSUES: AARP has targeted Social Security and family caregiving as the top election issues for older Americans this election cycle, and we encourage candidates at all levels to share their positions with voters.

EASIER VOTING: AARP is working with TurboVote to help older Americans cast their ballots securely and properly. Sign up for election reminders via email and text.

GET INVOLVED: AARP urges voters ­50-plus to let candidates know the everyday challenges that older Americans are facing. Find out how to get involved.

“I think it’s clear to secretaries of state everywhere that you’ve got to provide flexibility for people to vote,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief ­advocacy and engagement officer. “The days of you just having to show up the day of the election and stand in a long line are gone.”

AARP has a long history of educating its members on voting rules and regulations and has become increasingly active as voting laws have changed. “We know they vote, and they intend to vote,” LeaMond says. “And so our job is to help them know where, when and how.”

Justin Grimmer, who codirects the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford University, suggests that voters plan early and contact their elections office to see whether voting laws in their state have changed. He notes that even before many of the changes, voters over 65 throughout the country had access to absentee ballots without needing any reason to request one and that many of the recent changes expanded that access. “On the whole, I’d be optimistic about older voters having access to mail-in ballots.”

AARP has stepped up to work with state legislatures to ensure that election laws don’t disenfranchise or make it more difficult for older Americans to vote.

For example, in Nebraska, the electorate passed a constitutional amendment in 2022 that requires a photo ID for all elections. Voters will feel the first effects of it this year. (According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have some form of voter ID law.)

“We wanted to ensure that we’re not inhibiting any older Nebraskans by putting a voter ID initiative in place,” says Jina Ragland, AARP Nebraska associate state director.

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“Specifically, one of the biggest things for us was ensuring that older adults who no longer drive or may no longer have a photo ID could use an expired license,” Ragland says. At AARP’s urging, the Nebraska Legislature agreed. “We were also concerned about our assisted-living facility residents and nursing home residents who may not have an ID any longer, and they may not even have their ­expired license,” Ragland says. Also at AARP’s urging, election officials will allow these ­residents to use a record from their long-term care facility as a valid ID.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission considered changes to voting rules—opposed by AARP—that would have allowed election observers to go into nursing home patients’ rooms and watch them fill out their absentee ballot. “This is a matter of privacy,” says ­Martha Cranley, AARP Wisconsin state director. “Your nursing home room is your home. Nobody else has any business coming in there to watch you vote.” The commission agreed not to adopt that regulation.

“There have been multiple legislative proposals, most of which would cause older Wisconsinites to face a harder time in both accessing and submitting their ballot. The governor has so far served as a bulwark against most of these measures, continuously vetoing measures he deems as restrictive to voter access,” Cranley says.

In Michigan, AARP was instrumental in getting the word out to older residents about a 2022 ballot proposal that would have required absentee voters to put personal information such as their driver’s license or Social Security number on their absentee ballot as proof of identification.

“We were really concerned about that ­issue and waged a whole campaign around how this could lead to fraud with people stealing those envelopes,” says Melissa Seifert, AARP Michigan associate state director. AARP waged a “LeaveMIVoteAlone” campaign, with digital billboards and media ads across the state. The ballot proposition failed.

In all the states and territories, AARP offices conduct voter education campaigns, and the organization has created voter guides for each area that provide all the information needed to cast your ballot. 

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The pandemic effect

Absentee voting has long been an option for people who could not make it to the polls ­because of illness or out-of-town travel. Leading up to the 2020 election during COVID-19, many states passed laws to help ensure that voters who were afraid that standing in a long line at a polling place would expose them to the virus could still cast their ballots—either by mail or by filling them in at home, then putting them in a drop box or taking them to an election office.

As the pandemic eased, some states maintained their voting law expansions, while others pulled back. Some voting issues ended up in court.

In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that drop boxes, which became a much more common way to cast a ballot during the pandemic, were illegal. A lawsuit challenging that ruling will be heard by the state Supreme Court in May.

Public divided on new laws

There’s a strong partisan division over laws governing voting by mail: Just 28 percent of Republicans said any voter should be allowed to cast their ballot by mail, compared with 84 percent of Democrats, according to a January Pew Research Center survey.

Other voting changes have overwhelming bipartisan support, the Pew poll found. For example, 82 percent expressed support for requiring paper ballot backups for electronic voting machines. A photo ID requirement for voting was supported by 81 percent; 76 percent of respondents favored making early in-person voting available for two weeks before Election Day; and 72 percent supported making Election Day a national holiday.

Though ballot security has gained attention since the 2020 election, many Americans aren’t thrilled with the idea of technology playing more of a role in voting, the Pew survey shows. Technology, says Stanford’s Grimmer, is increasingly used in the operation of our elections: Databases allow people applying for a driver’s license to also be automatically registered to vote, and Americans can register and request an absentee ballot online.

But, Grimmer says, technology in voting is likely to go just so far.

“There’s a lot of reluctance among some experts to make too much of voting electronically,” he says. Does that mean Americans won’t soon be able to open an app on their phone and cast their ballot without ever leaving home?

“I would be extremely surprised if that happens,” Grimmer says. “If that happens in the next 20 years, I’d be shocked.”

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