In recent years, we’ve witnessed an onslaught of election-related legislation that is pulling the nation in two directions. On the one hand, many states have taken steps to erode participation in our democracy, creating hurdles to casting a ballot and interfering with fair and transparent election administration. Meanwhile, other states have made tremendous progress in expanding participation in our democracy, giving voters more options to make their voices heard and strengthening our elections infrastructure.
As state policies increasingly diverge when it comes to elections – the cornerstone of our democracy – there are few issues on which a vast majority of states are headed in a positive direction. One of them is in-person early voting.
A Rapid Transformation
While most states allow voters to cast a ballot in person during an early voting period before Election Day, before the 2020 election, seven states did not offer any in-person early voting: Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Mississippi, and South Carolina. We are now poised to see that number drop down to only three states in 2022 – remarkable progress for only two legislative sessions.
As the pandemic raged throughout 2020, many states temporarily expanded the availability of early voting to facilitate safer voting options and relieve the pressure on Election Day. A record number of voters took advantage of this option: 30.6 percent of the total ballots cast were done so in person before Election Day in 2020.
States responded to this popularity in the 2021 session by making permanent expansions to early voting availability. In Kentucky, one of the few states that had no early voting opportunities before 2020, lawmakers worked across the aisle to pass H.B. 574, creating three days of early voting. Just this month, we’re on track to see two states with Republican-controlled legislatures create early voting for the first time: South Carolina enacted, and the Missouri legislature sent a bill to the governor’s desk, that would give voters two weeks prior to Election Day to cast their ballot.
And in Connecticut, in-person early voting will appear on the ballot this November for the state’s voters to decide. This issue is hugely popular in the state – 2021 polling found that nearly four in five Connecticut voters support making early voting available. While Connecticut’s constitution currently prohibits early voting, last year the legislature passed a resolution to put the issue on the ballot. If voters approve the amendment in November, the state constitution will be amended to allow for early voting.
Not All Early Voting is Created Equal
While offering in-person early voting is critical to a more inclusive democracy, not all early voting is created equal – meaning there is also much room to improve and expand existing early voting policies in states around the country. Since the 2020 election, we have seen 16 states improve their early voting systems. This number will go up to 17 once Missouri’s governor signs H.B. 1878.
After enacting early voting for the first time in 2021, Kentucky expanded the number of mandatory hours in 2022. Last year, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New York, and Maryland all expanded the number of days or hours of early voting, while New Jersey moved from offering in-person absentee style early voting to offering Election Day-style early voting.
Even states that majorly curtailed voting access in the 2021 legislative session still made small improvements to early voting. Texas lawmakers, who severely restricted access with the passage of S.B. 1, included an expansion of mandatory early voting hours in the bill – though the bill also capped the number of early voting hours, preventing counties from offering more. And restrictive Georgia bill S.B. 202 requires counties to offer more days of weekend early voting – though again, it also limits counties’ discretion to offer hours of voting above the minimum required.
This unified positive movement contrasts sharply with the treatment of another voting option that became widely popular during the pandemic: mail voting. In 2021, we saw 28 states enact legislation to expand and improve mail voting, while 13 states enacted legislation restricting access to mail voting.
Early Voting Remains Popular in 2022
We are watching to see how the increased availability of early voting will impact voters’ experience during the 2022 primary elections, some of which are already underway. So far, early voting is setting records in Georgia, where more than 300,000 ballots have been cast at early voting locations across the state. That’s three times as many as during the same period in the 2018 primary, Associated Press reports.
In North Carolina, executive director of the state Board of Elections, Karen Brinson Bell, said that around 600,000 North Carolinians voted during the early voting period – more than double the 295,000 voters who voted early or by mail in the 2018 midterm elections. Another 40 primary contests still remain around the country.
Expanding Early Voting is Key to Expanding Civic Participation
Early voting provides voters with greater flexibility and more time to make their voices heard. As states continue to create or improve early voting – and as the 2022 primaries unfold – our team at Voting Rights Lab will be monitoring how and if voters take advantage of this critical voting option.