Mail-in voting changes could play a decisive role in these swing states
The COVID-19 pandemic turned absentee voting into an essential part of the 2020 elections, with more than 39 million Americans choosing to cast their ballots by mail.
States have been reckoning with the consequences ever since.
Former President Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud in his loss to President Biden included suggestions that absentee voting was partly to blame, leading his allies in GOP-led states to enact limits to mail-in voting.
Other states have made temporary pandemic measures permanent, making it easier to send in votes ahead of elections.
It remains to be seen what role mail-in voting will play in the 2022 midterms, but it is certain to be closely watched, especially in crucial swing states.
Here are five states where mail-in voting — and changes made over the past two years — could play a decisive role in close races.
Following the 2020 presidential election, Arizona enacted several laws changing vote-by-mail process and procedures.
Many of these laws won’t go into effect until 2023 and beyond, however, a law that will be in effect requires mail ballots missing signatures to be thrown out if they are not fixed by 7 p.m. on Election Day.
The law codifies what for many precincts in the state was already commonplace, however some precincts previously granted a “cure period” for missing signatures.
Arizona will still have a 5-day cure period for mailed ballots on which the signature does not match the voter’s signature on file.
The bill making the changes, S.B. 1003, was heavily litigated but ultimately upheld by Arizona’s 9th Circuit Court.
Liz Avore, senior adviser for the nonprofit Voting Rights Lab, said that the law would disenfranchise voters and be particularly harmful to Indigenous voters in Arizona — a constituency that leaned liberal in 2020, according to precinct level data.
“A lot of these ballots are going to be coming in, you know, on Election Day or just before Election Day, and so requiring voters to fix the problem by 7 p.m. on Election Day is obviously going to exclude a lot of voters,” said Avore.
“It’s going to exclude a lot of voters particularly on tribal lands where mail is more inconsistent and often the P.O. box is further away for folks to get to.”
Arizona has a number of closely watched races pitting Trump-backed election deniers against more moderate Democratic candidates in the increasingly purple state.
Democrat Katie Hobbs is tied with Republican Kari Lake in recent polls of the governor’s race, while incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D) is maintaining a significant lead over GOP nominee Blake Masters. There is also a close House race between Democrat Kirsten Engel and Republican Juan Ciscomani.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has avoided saying whether the 2020 election was rigged, but has nonetheless taken numerous actions to crack down on alleged election fraud.
In May 2021, he signed S.B. 90, which requires those voting by mail to provide a driver’s license or state identification card number or the last four digits of their social security number to receive an absentee ballot. The number provided then must be verified by an election official to make sure it matches the number on file in the voter’s registration for the voter to be mailed a ballot.
Avore said many voters may not have those numbers on hand, as they were not previously necessary when registering to vote by mail or making a mail-ballot request.
“They would no longer be able to vote by mail unless they were to, you know, take action to go and actually add those numbers to their voter registration file,” said Avore.
Other provisions of the law require absentee ballot requests to be received at least 10 days before the election, or be rejected. Any issues with ID numbers must also be sorted out before the 10-day deadline for mail ballot requests to get processed in time.
In April, DeSantis signed off on a law replacing ballot drop boxes with secure ballot intake stations, which are only open during early voting hours and must be manned by an elections official when they are open.
Avore said that restrictions on drop boxes could disproportionately impact voters of color.
“There’s also research that shows that when drop boxes … are equitably placed throughout an area, it actually particularly is helpful to voters of color,” said Avore. “Voters of color tend to disproportionately rely on drop boxes.”
Voters of color also disproportionately vote for Democrats. In the 2020 presidential election, 89 percent of Black and 53 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida voted for Biden, according to an NBC exit poll.
Florida’s new election laws also make it a third-degree felony for an individual to possess more than two mail-ballots, aside from their own and the ballots of immediate family members, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 dollar fine.
“I think what it does is it’s going to limit the ability of voters to ask, you know, either a trusted friend or caregiver to pick up or drop off a vote by mail ballot for them, and that’s going to have an impact on elderly, working, and mobility impaired voters in the state of Florida,” said Bobby Hoffman, deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Democracy Division.
While DeSantis is maintaining a wide lead over Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, other high-profile races are closer, including Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) bid to keep his seat against Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla).
Georgia officials refused Trump’s entreaties to overturn his loss to Biden in 2020, but have been much more willing to pass laws targeting potential election fraud.
Under S.B. 202, which was passed last year, those voting by mail in the state are required to provide some form of ID in order to receive and cast a mail ballot. The bill also shortens the time frame that someone can request an absentee ballot from 180 days before an election to 78 days.
Additionally, all absentee requests must be received at least 11 days before an election for a voter to receive a ballot, up from the 4-day deadline that was in place in 2020.
“Many folks won’t be aware that they’re going to be unable to vote in person in that time frame, so it shortens the period for them to request a ballot by mail,” said Hoffman. “For some of those folks it may unfortunately mean that they’re unable to vote because of that.”
In Georgia’s legislative elections last November, 52 percent of applications for mail ballots were rejected because voter requests were made within the last 11 days before the election, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, while only 26 percent of those who had absentee requests rejected went on to cast ballots in person on Election Day.
Another provision of the bill also limits the hours which drop boxes can be open, changing it from 24/7 to whenever polling locations are open for early in-person voting. Additionally, the bill also has a provision limiting drop boxes.
An analysis by NPR, WABE and Georgia Public Broadcasting tracking this change to drop boxes found “more than half of the roughly 550,000 voters who cast their ballot using a drop box in the state’s 2020 general election lived in four metro Atlanta counties — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — where about 50% of the voters are people of color.”
The analysis also found that in these four counties alone the number of drop boxes had dropped from 107 to 25 under the new law, and that overall, a quarter of the state’s voters (1.9 million people) have seen their travel time to drop boxes increase from 2020.
Mail voting has typically skewed more in favor of Democrats in Georgia. In 2020, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) won his Senate seat after receiving 395,037 more mail ballots than his Republican challenger Kelly Loeffler.
Warnock is locked in a close race this year with Trump-backed former football star Herschel Walker. Democrat Stacey Abrams, a leading voting rights advocate in the state, is also making a second bid to beat Gov. Brian Kemp (R), whom she lost to in 2018.
The Georgia Democratic Party said in a statement provided to The Hill that it was committed to making sure the new law doesn’t prevent anyone from voting.
“While no eligible voter should have to face challenges in casting a ballot, we are working hard to educate and empower voters, defend access to the ballot box, and protect every vote so that all Georgians can have their voices heard.”
Democratic-controlled Nevada has moved in the opposite direction, passing policies likely to increase turnout in the 2022 elections.
In 2021, lawmakers passed A.B. 321, which requires county clerks to mail all active registered voters a ballot at least 14 days before an election, making Nevada one of eight states to offer universal mail-in ballots.
“It’s going to provide them [Nevada voters] increased convenience,” said Hoffman. “In states that have vote by mail processes we usually see some increase in turnout as well amongst the electorate.”
The Nevada Senate race will be among the most closely watched, with Trump-endorsed former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt taking on incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.). Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) is also in a tight reelection race against Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the GOP nominee.
Robert Uithoven, a consultant for Laxalt’s campaign, said the universal mail system meant some ballots were being delivered to homes where people hadn’t lived for years.
“There’s videos all over online of hundreds of ballots piling up in apartment complex mailboxes, you know, mail room garbage cans, and mail ballots being littered all over the state. That does not garner encouragement in an election process,” Uithoven said.
“I don’t think it puts us at a disadvantage from our opponent, but that’s certainly not an endorsement of the policy,” he added.
Like Florida and Georgia, Texas also passed a law in 2021 that would require voters to provide a form of ID to receive a mail ballot. But the Texas law also requires an ID to return a completed ballot — and the numbers must match.
Critics of the policy have pointed out that voters in Texas could provide a valid form of ID and still have their votes thrown out for simply forgetting which form of ID they used when requesting an absentee ballot.
S.B. 1 has already become a source of confusion for many Texas voters. According to NPR, 24,636 mail-in ballots were rejected during the March 1 primary in Texas, which amounts to a 12.38 percent rejection rate for mail ballots.
The rejection rate for mail ballots was less than 1 percent in the 2020 presidential election, according to previous reporting by The Texas Tribune.
Democrats had more ballots rejected in the primary, with 14,281 compared to 10,355 for Republicans, however, the rejection rate was similar for voters of both parties.
“What we saw play out in Texas disproportionately impacted voters of color in terms of excluding them from the democratic system,” Avore said.
And as in other states, voters of color more often voted Democratic in Texas. In 2020, 93 percent of Black, 63 percent of Asian, and 58 percent of Hispanic voters in Texas voted for Biden, according to a CBS exit poll.
S.B. 1 also puts new restrictions in place severely limiting who can assist a voter in filling out a ballot and under what circumstances.
Gov. Greg Abbott currently has a healthy lead over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in the polls. However, there is a closely watched House race for control of the 34th District, between Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Republican challenger Mayra Flores.