The Year in Review for Voting Rights: Five Achievements and Five Setbacks

by Elizabeth Grossman

December 14, 2021

2021 has been a historic year for voting rights policy. We tracked nearly 3,000 bills moving in all 50 states and D.C. this year, resulting in almost 300 new laws – both pro- and anti-voter.

While voting rights advocates spent much of 2021 defending against attacks on the freedom to vote, there is much concrete progress to celebrate, too.

The Top Five Voting Rights Achievements of 2021

Expanding early voting. 2020 saw a record number of voters take advantage of early in-person voting – 30.6 percent of the total ballots cast were done so in person before Election Day. Many states expanded early voting temporarily in 2020 to reduce the pressure on Election Day voting and facilitate safer voting options during the pandemic. Voters took advantage of these expanded options, and a number of states responded this session by making permanent expansions to early voting availability. Fifteen states created, expanded, or improved in-person early voting in the 2021 legislative session. For example:

  • Kentucky, one of the few states with no early voting opportunities before 2020, passed H.B. 574, creating three days of early voting throughout the Bluegrass State.
  • Texas expanded mandatory weekend early voting hours in S.B. 1. Now counties with a population of at least 55,000 – previously the cutoff was 100,000 – are required to have 12 hours of Saturday voting and 6 hours of Sunday voting.
  • Virginia expanded early voting to include Sundays.
  • Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Maryland all expanded the number of days or hours of early voting.
  • Connecticut got one big step closer to offering early voting: Its legislature passed a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment that would abolish the constitutional prohibition on in-person early voting. This constitutional amendment will be put to the voters in November 2022.

Voting rights restoration. Eight states have expanded voting eligibility, or improved access, for citizens with past felony convictions (or have paved the way for voters to approve such a law), while no states have made it harder for returning citizens to vote. Connecticut now automatically restores voting rights upon release from incarceration, making it the 20th state to do so; previously a returning citizen’s rights were not restored until they completed probation or parole and paid any outstanding fines.

Making it easier to vote by mail. Twenty-seven states enacted legislation that increased access to mail ballots in 2021. Perhaps most notably, California passed a bill making it the seventh state to mail ballots to all active voters, joining Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Ballot tracking and cure. One thing legislators of both major parties agreed on is the need for voters to be able to track their mail ballots and to have an opportunity to fix any errors on their absentee ballot envelopes that would otherwise prevent their vote from being counted. Eight states – Texas, Utah, California, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Maine – passed laws to create, facilitate, or improve the accessibility of ballot tracking tools for voters. Meanwhile, seven states – Texas, Maine, North Dakota, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Vermont – created or codified processes to notify voters of problems with their absentee ballot envelopes and provide an opportunity to resolve the issue. No states rolled back these processes this year.

Defeating attacks on voting access. As chronicled in an earlier edition of The Lever, the voting rights movement successfully warded off many attacks on voting access, including cuts to Sunday voting in Georgia and Texas, and to drop boxes in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin.

The Bottom Five of 2021

Partisan reviews of 2020 election results. Seven states introduced legislation this year to review the certified election results from 2020, and others initiated these reviews extra-legislatively. A long and costly review in Maricopa County, Arizona found no evidence of fraud. A review in Wisconsin is still underway, despite the fact that two other Wisconsin reviews that have concluded confirm no fraud. Several states, including Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina will consider bills to review the 2020 election in their 2022 session. Most states already have a process to confirm election results, including risk-limiting and probabilistic audits, and the push for costly, standardless “audits,” often conducted by people with no expertise in election monitoring, only serves to undermine the integrity of our elections.

Injecting partisanship in elections administration. Fifteen states have enacted legislation shifting election authority, which in many cases could make the administration of elections more partisan. Some of these states shifted authority for explicitly partisan purposes. For example, Arizona shifted litigation authority away from the secretary of state (currently a Democrat) to the attorney general (a Republican). Lawmakers chose to sunset this provision when the next attorney general would take office, ostensibly in case the party affiliation changes in the next election. Though the Arizona Supreme Court struck this provision from the year-end budget bill, other partisan legislation has already been prefiled.

Making it harder to vote by mail. While many states responded to historic mail voting in 2020 by expanding access to vote by mail in 2021 and beyond, 13 states have enacted legislation restricting it. For example, Arizona gutted its popular Permanent Early Voter List, and bills passed in Texas, Georgia, and Florida that require voters to provide additional information to request a mail ballot.

Criminalization of election workers. Seven states passed legislation to increase or create criminal penalties against election workers, often to prevent officials from repeating their 2020 efforts to increase voter turnout. A new Texas law makes it a felony for election officials to mail absentee ballot applications to voters who did not specifically ask for one. Other states passed legislation to pressure election workers to more aggressively remove voters from registration lists by adding new list removal practices and making it a crime to fail to follow them. Iowa, for example, created an aggravated misdemeanor for an election worker who fails to implement required voter registration list maintenance.

Federal reform stalled. Congress failed to find bipartisan alignment on elections legislation – despite the fact that states have demonstrated broad agreement across the political spectrum on a number of elections issues, including expanded early voting, ballot tracking, cure processes, and providing more time for election officials to process mail ballots.

The Voting Rights Lab is already busy tracking pre-filed bills for 2022. Pre-filed bills will display on the State Voting Rights Tracker beginning in January 2022. For now, click here to see which bills are carrying over from 2021 to 2022.

We look forward to tackling this work head-on with our partners across the country in our shared work to create an America where voting is equitable, accessible and serves as a celebration – of our freedom, of our democracy, and of our communities.

This Hot Policy Take is powered by VRL’s State Voting Rights Tracker: