In State After State, Voters Face Barriers to the Ballot Box

By: - October 15, 2020 12:00 am

A voter in Cleveland casts her absentee ballot during the Ohio primary. As states expand access to mail-in ballots, a bitter partisan debate grows. A voter in Cleveland casts her absentee ballot during the Ohio primary. Tony Dejak/The Associated Press

Voters in every state face obstacles to casting a ballot. The Center for Public Integrity and Stateline teamed up to explore the challenges. Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening, with more states added as we report them.


Alabama is the state that brought the lawsuit in 2013 that gutted the Voting Rights Act and allowed other states — mostly southern ones — to immediately pass long-wished-for voter laws and local rules that effectively suppress the Black and Latino vote. Alabama officials continue to defend voter restrictions imposed during the past few years and block new efforts to make it easier to vote. The state has adopted a strict photo ID law, while making it more difficult to obtain driver’s licenses to comply with the law by closing motor vehicle departments in predominantly Black communities.


Due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the Alaska Supreme Court has lifted the state’s normal requirement that absentee ballots be signed by a witness. But a shortage of polling place workers and unreliable mail delivery threaten to disenfranchise the state’s most rural voters, in particular, which can have a disproportionate impact on the state’s Native American population. 


Republican legislators moved aggressively to place new restrictions on voting after the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the federal Voting Rights Act’s oversight of Arizona in 2013. It has limited early voting and has adopted some of the harshest restrictions in the country on people who’ve been convicted of a crime, disenfranchising 4.3% of the state’s adult population. A court fight over the state’s restrictions on absentee ballot collection is headed to the Supreme Court and could open the door for a further erosion of the Voting Rights Act.


From having one of the earliest registration deadlines allowed by federal law — a month before the election — to not informing voters if a minor error means their absentee ballot won’t be counted, Arkansas employs a variety of disenfranchisement tactics. In the 2016 presidential election, about one in 20 absentee ballots in Arkansas were rejected, according to an analysis by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, compared to a national average of one in 100.


California will decide in a statewide referendum this November whether to grant voting rights to nearly 50,000 people who are on parole in the state. It’s among a series of measures the state has taken in recent years to expand access to voting. But disruption to polling place locations and failure to comply with federal Voting Rights Act requirements that voting information be available in other languages continue to be barriers for some California residents.


Reforms passed in Colorado in 2013 broadened access to the ballot box. They are now a model for other states looking to make it easier for residents to vote. The Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013 requires ballots to be mailed to every registered voter for most elections, created voting centers where any registered resident could cast a ballot (instead of assigned polling places) and allowed residents to register the day of the election. But advocates remained about felony disenfranchisement and the rejection of absentee ballots disproportionately affecting people of color and younger voters.


Outside of the South, Connecticut has some of the strictest limits on voting in the country, including no provision for early voting, and allowing absentee ballots only if a voter is ill, disabled, has a religious objection, or will be out of town on Election Day. The state is allowing fears of COVID-19 to be used as an excuse for absentee balloting this fall, but the move is temporary. A change in the state constitution would have to be made to enact permanent changes.


The state legislature has approved a 10-day period for early voting in Delaware, but the system won’t take effect until 2022. The state has mailed every registered voter an absentee ballot application this year, but ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day, and the state set up only four locations for secure dropboxes for ballots to be returned. A state court rejected a lawsuit that sought to have mail-in ballots arriving late counted as long as they are postmarked before the election.


After residents in a statewide referendum restored the voting rights of 1.5 million people who have been convicted of crimes, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor passed what advocates have called a “poll tax,” requiring that they pay all court fees, fines and restitution associated with their cases before they can vote. Reliability of the mail and voter awareness about the state’s requirement that absentee ballots be received by Election Day to count is also a concern in Florida. Ballots that arrive after Election Day, no matter when they’re postmarked, will be thrown out.


Aggressive — some would say racially targeted — voter list purges, a strict voter ID law, long lines due to inadequate polling place locations in Black neighborhoods. Georgia has been a poster child for voter disenfranchisement in recent years, in part because of the razor-thin 2018 margin of victory by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state and implemented many of the measures that helped him win. Voting rights advocates are worried about all of the same factors in this November election, and have gone to court over most of them, with mixed results.


Voting rights advocates worry that Hawaii’s switch to near-universal voting by mail has left the homeless and housing insecure with even less equal access to the electoral process. The state’s cutoff for registering to vote by mail is among the earliest in the country, and voter service centers that allow residents to register in person are difficult to access on some of Hawaii’s islands. Advocates would also like to see reform of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law. Native Hawaiians represent more than one-third of the people whose voting rights have been taken away because of it.


Same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting, measures that typically increase voter turnout, have laid the groundwork for expanded voter access in Idaho. But there are worries about disruptions in the postal service, which could lead to ballots arriving late. In Idaho, absentee ballots for the general election must be received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Advocates also worry that the state’s voter ID law could disenfranchise college students, who are often questioned about their residency requirements.


Absentee ballots in Illinois will be counted up to two weeks after the election as long as they’re postmarked by Nov. 3. The state has adopted no-excuse, universal voting by mail, sent every registered voter an absentee ballot application, and has declared Election Day a state holiday. Advocates would like Illinois to go further — mailing actual ballots, as truly vote-by-mail states do, for example — and have been critical of mistakes in the execution of the state’s automatic voter registration program.  


After Barack Obama won the typically safe Republican state of Indiana in 2008 on the strength of Black and Latino support in the county that includes Indianapolis, election officials closed early voting centers there while opening more in predominantly White areas. Obama was defeated in Indiana in 2012 and Democrat Hillary Clinton lost the state in 2016. The state enforces a strict voter ID law that has been proven to disproportionately impact people of color. And it’s been aggressive in purging names from its voter registration list, in many cases, without notifying them. Between 2016 and 2018, the state removed more than a quarter of voters from its rolls.


Iowa eliminated a hurdle to voting in this pandemic year by opting to send all active voters applications for absentee ballots. But hurdles at different parts of the process could trip up voters. This will be the first presidential election in which Iowans must comply with the state’s contested 2017 voter-identification law, upheld in part in 2019 after a court battle. But Thousands of Iowans gained back their voting rights in time for the general election this year. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an executive order allowing people with felony convictions other than for homicides to vote, once they’ve completed the terms of their parole and probation.


A law that disenfranchised more than 30,000 Kansans is no longer in effect but looms over this election. Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s claims of widespread voter fraud led the Sunflower State to pass a law requiring Kansans to prove U.S. citizenship when registering to vote. Acceptable documents included a passport, birth certificate or certificate of naturalization. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court found Kansas’s law is unconstitutional and violates the National Voter Registration Act. The state has appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Voters in Kentucky will be able to cast an absentee ballot for any reason this November under a temporary provision adopted due to concerns about COVID-19. The state has also restored the right to vote for more than 170,000 citizens who have prior felony convictions. But Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a new requirement in March that voters must present a government-issued photo ID to be able to cast a ballot this year. 


Polling place closures stemming from damage by hurricanes and flooding and long lines at the polls in predominantly Black neighborhoods are among the obstacles facing voters in Louisiana this year. The state has expanded voting by mail this year, but Republican officials and advocates have fought in court over the details, with a mixed result. Louisiana also prohibits people who’ve been convicted of a felony from voting while in prison, on probation or parole, and has a somewhat onerous process for restoring rights after that.


Maine led the nation in voter turnout in both the 2016 presidential election and 2018 mid-terms. Along with Vermont and Washington, D.C., it stands alone in placing no restrictions whatsoever on voting by people who’ve been convicted of a crime or are imprisoned. It’s the only state in the country that uses a ranked-choice, automatic runoff system, which will be in the place for a presidential election for the first time ever this fall. But the state won’t budge on its received-by-Election Day deadline for absentee ballots, even if they were postmarked before the election. And the Maine Supreme Court has ruled against voting rights advocates who had sought to force a change due to concerns about a slowdown in U.S. Postal Service delivery.


More early voting centers and secure drop boxes have been deployed for the November election in Maryland after 30,000 ballots during the state’s primary this year were tossed out after arriving late. Voting rights advocates are trying to spread the word about alternatives to relying on the mail. 


An expansion of early voting and allowing anyone to vote by absentee ballot helped lead to among the highest turnouts for a primary in recent Massachusetts history this fall. Voting rights advocates would like to see the changes last beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re also hoping voters endorse a referendum on the November ballot that would have the state join Maine in adopting a ranked-choice voting system where voters’ second choice would be factored in automatically to pick a winner if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.


As a key battleground state in the November presidential election, Michigan is seeing an array of court battles over almost every aspect of absentee balloting and provisions to accommodate concerns about COVID-19 in how voting takes place. The most consequential is a fight over whether absentee ballots should be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, or only if they’re received by then.


Absentee ballots won’t require a witness signature in Minnesota this year, thanks to a lawsuit that sought special accommodations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications have been mailed to every registered voter. Although relatively progressive on other voting access issues, the state still bans people with felony convictions from voting if they are in prison, on probation or parole, disenfranchising 40,000 to 50,000 people. The law disproportionately affects people of color. More than 10 percent of Black men in Minnesota are prohibited from voting.


Mississippi has rules for voting by mail that make it almost impossible to vote by mail. And the state hasn’t eased them in the face of concerns about COVID-19. The state also helped write the book on felony disenfranchisement that was originally aimed specifically at preventing Black residents from voting. It’s still state law, and today prevents more than 16% of Black Mississippians from casting ballots.


Missouri has expanded mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic but has made it nearly impossible for people to do it. Voters who want to avoid going to the polls can ask for a mail-in ballot, but it must be requested in person or by mail. Under the new law, most voters must also have their ballot signatures notarized, and they can only return completed ballots by U.S. mail, not in person. If mail is delayed and ballots arrive after 7 p.m. on Election Day, they won’t be counted.


Montana made voting by mail accessible to everyone this year due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, and survived a court challenge by Republicans, with a judge calling their contention that it would lead to voter fraud “fiction.” But the push to expand mail-in voting doesn’t help all residents in Montana. The state has seven Native American reservations, where voters have limited access to the postal service, making voting by mail an obstacle. All but 10 of Montana’s 56 counties are holding the election with mail-in ballots only, though voters can deliver their ballots to drop boxes or election offices. 


Nebraska is one of 11 states that does not automatically restore voting rights to people who have served time in prison for a felony conviction. There’s a two-year waiting period for it to happen, and even then, the process for regaining the right to vote can be confusing and unclear. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, the state mailed absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. But advocates would like to see Nebraska move to a more full-fledged vote-by-mail system in which every voter is sent an actual ballot.


Voters were already dropping off ballots or voting early in person when President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Nevada Republican Party filed a lawsuit raising doubts about that state’s newly expanded mail-in voting system. Their latest challenge seeks a temporary restraining order halting early vote counts in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and 72% of Nevada’s population, until their demands for closer observation of vote counting are granted.

New Jersey

Some states that took extra steps this year to ensure safe voting during the COVID-19 pandemic mailed out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. New Jersey was among those that went further, mailing every registered voter an actual ballot as is done under full-fledged vote-by-mail systems. The state has also made historic strides this year in reforming felony disenfranchisement policies that disproportionately affect people of color.

New Hampshire

After President Trump made unfounded accusations about “busloads” of people from Massachusetts voting in New Hampshire’s 2016 presidential election, Republican lawmakers in the state passed several pieces of legislation aimed at putting strict residency requirements on voters. The measures seemed to target students in Democratic-leaning college towns in particular, a lengthy court battle ensued, and the bulk of the law was overturned. But students still face challenges in voting in a pandemic. It’s difficult to register to vote in New Hampshire, and advocates say that the implementation of a temporary easing of absentee ballot rules this year has been confusing.

New Mexico

New Mexico has expanded the availability of absentee ballots in recent years, but won’t count them if they arrive after Election Day, even if they were postmarked before then. A reduction in early voting sites and Election Day polling places has disproportionately impacted Native American voters. And as of August, more than 38,000 residents of the state were unable to vote due to New Mexico’s disenfranchisement of people who’ve been convicted of a felony while they are in prison, probation or parole.

New York

Only 57% of eligible New York voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, 41st for voter turnout in the nation. Participation will likely improve this fall since the state has added early voting and made it easier to get an absentee ballot this year. But until New York drops onerous voter registration deadlines and removes other barriers to voting, advocates say, thousands will continue to be cut out of the electoral process. 

North Carolina

North Carolina has been held up as a state with some of the most restrictive voting laws and rules. But voting rights advocates have had success this year in limiting efforts to erect barriers that disproportionately affect people of color. In August, a federal judge ruled that many of the restrictions to voting will stand this election season. But in a win for voting access, the judge also ruled that the state must allow voters who submitted an absentee ballot with irregularities — such as a signature in the wrong place or no printed name for the witness — to be notified and given a chance to fix the problem

North Dakota

North Dakota is unusual in that it doesn’t have a voter registration system. Instead, it has adopted strict requirements for presenting photo ID at the polls that have disenfranchised Native American voters who do not have traditional addresses. November’s election will be the first test of a settlement the state reached over legal challenges to that law that called for outreach to provide more IDs on tribal lands. 


Numerous voter suppression tactics are being employed in Ohio and could lead to tens of thousands of votes not being counted in this fall’s presidential election. More than 4 percent of absentee ballots cast in this year’s primary were tossed out over signatures that local officials said didn’t match and various other reasons. Ohio’s Republican secretary of state has attempted to limit secure drop boxes for absentee ballots to one per county, even though they span hundreds of square miles, and population ranges from 13,000 to 1.3 million. And the state’s aggressive purging of voting lists — removing voters who don’t vote frequently — has been the subject of court battles.


At the beginning of the pandemic, Oklahoma told its citizens they needed to seek out a notary if they wanted to vote by mail. After a successful lawsuit challenging that, and a counter-move by conservative lawmakers, they can now seek out a copy machine instead. If they don’t get their ballots notarized, Oklahomans must submit a copy of their ID if they want their mailed-in votes to be counted this November.


Rhetoric about fraud and voting by mail is a head scratcher in Oregon, which has had a vote-by-mail system since the 1990s. Cases of fraud have happened about as often as fraud in an in-person voting system — pretty much never. Oregon has also adopted a state version of the federal Voting Rights Act, enabling people of color to sue or take other action if there are issues of disenfranchisement or unequal representation in local school board elections. The result? More people vote. Oregon is typically in the top 10 for states with the highest voter turnout percentage.


Court battles over secure drop boxes for absentee ballots, whether so-called “naked ballots” mistakenly sent in without being inside a security envelope will be counted and a host of other issues related to this November’s election are still playing out in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. The state traditionally required that absentee ballots be received before polls close on Election Day, but the state Supreme Court has ruled that they must be postmarked by then, and can be received up to three days later to count. 

Rhode Island

Rhode Island stands out among states long controlled by Democrats as being among the least progressive when it comes to voting access. A strict photo ID law is especially problematic this year in that it requires voters to present a driver’s license or similar ID that’s no more than 6 months out of date at the time of the election, while the state’s DMV has been mostly shut down for the past eight months due to COVID-19. Advocates are also calling for a temporary cancellation of requirements that absentee ballots have a witness and be notarized to be made permanent.

South Carolina

Voting rights advocates have won one key battle over absentee ballot counting in South Carolina this fall and lost one. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings that found the state’s requirement that absentee voters get a witness to sign their absentee ballot submission was too much of a burden during a pandemic. But because the state had been operating under the previous courts’ rulings, the decision won’t apply to ballots received prior to Oct. 7. In a separate case, a federal judge ruled on Oct. 27 that the state cannot reject absentee ballots due to mismatched signatures, and that any ballots that have been rejected so far for that reason must be reviewed and processed again.

South Dakota

Native Americans, who represent 10% of South Dakota’s population, are far less likely to have their votes counted than the state’s White residents. A shortage of polling places accessible to tribal lands was reflected in a 2017 survey finding that 32% of Native Americans in the state said the distance they had to travel to vote could prevent them from doing so. They’ve been disproportionately affected by felony disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, like Native Americans in other parts of the country. They are more likely to have nontraditional addresses that make it more difficult to register to vote and cast a ballot. And a nationwide concern about slow U.S. Postal Service delivery can be even worse on tribal lands, removing voting by mail as a solid alternative for some.


A court decision has allowed limited provision for Tennessee voters this fall who want to cast an absentee ballot due to concerns about COVID-19. Otherwise, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has been aggressive in restricting access to voting, including making it a crime to share absentee ballot application forms unless you are an elections official. 


After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 weakened the Voting Rights Act’s oversight of states with a history of discriminating against voters based on race, Texas closed more than 700 polling places. It continues to be one of the most difficult states in which to register to vote, and it isn’t allowing residents to use COVID-19 concerns as an excuse for absentee balloting this fall.


Voters can register on Election Day in Utah, no photo ID is required to cast a ballot and it is one of only a few states that mails every registered voter a ballot. But one consequence of Utah’s push toward mail-in voting has been the disappearance of some of the state’s in-person polling places, which can be essential for voters who need translation services or other assistance. The lack of traditional addresses on tribal land has also been a challenge for the state’s Native American population.


After fighting off a Republican lawsuit that was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, Vermont will switch to a near-universal vote-by-mail system this year in which every voter will be mailed a ballot. Advocates would like to see the temporary change last beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re also pushing for more proactive measures to make sure that non-English speakers and the disabled have no trouble voting.


Voters in Virginia no longer have to show a photo ID to vote, and can now cast an absentee ballot for any reason. These are among reforms that have led to a surge in early voting in the state this fall. Residents still must register to vote 3 weeks prior to the election, however, and Virginia is one of just three states in the country that still permanently disenfranchises people with felony convictions.


Washington state is seen as progressive for its nearly universal vote-by-mail system. Ballots are mailed to every registered voter, and turnout is typically high. But voting rights advocates say that Washington’s approach to disenfranchising people who’ve been convicted of a felony disproportionately impacts people of color. Voting rights aren’t restored until after release from prison and completion of parole.

Washington, D.C.

In normal, pre-pandemic times, it was fairly easy to cast a ballot in the District of Columbia. This year, though, the Board of Elections worked to make it easier, mailing ballots to all registered voters. The District’s biggest problem with voter disenfranchisement is the fact that residents have no representation in Congress.

West Virginia

Restrictions on absentee balloting have been lifted in West Virginia this year due to COVID-19, but advocates are worried that voters will be confused by the state’s decision to send out absentee ballot applications to residents ahead of the primary, but then not for the general election. And unlike many other states, West Virginia isn’t offering secure drop boxes as an alternative to mailing in ballots.


After Republicans took power in 2010, Wisconsin adopted a series of new restrictions on voting, including a strict voter ID law that researchers say prevented as many as 12,000 predominantly Black residents in Milwaukee and Madison from voting in 2016. The changes, which are the subject of ongoing court battles, have also reduced the state’s window for early voting.


Wyoming has taken steps due to COVID-19 this year to make it easier to vote, mailing absentee ballot applications to every voter, and allowing Native American residents to use tribal ID to register. The state has resisted enacting strict voter ID laws that have been put in place in other states in recent years. But registering to vote is not easy. It’s the only state in the country requiring a notarized form to register, and there’s no way to do it online.

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Stateline staff
Stateline staff

Stateline’s team of veteran journalists combines original reporting with a roundup of the latest news from sources around the country.