‘A new American fault line’: How new election laws will make it harder for 55 million to vote

  • Many of the post-pandemic voter laws will be tested for the first time in 2021.
  • 55 million eligible voters live in states with new 'anti-voter' laws limiting access.
  • Early in-person voting saw an increase in hours and days across 14 states.
  • Americans will lose more than 160 days in absentee voting.

In the year since the tumultuous 2020 election, held amid a global pandemic, state lawmakers across the nation have reshaped the way voters will cast ballots through hundreds of new laws, rules and timelines.

A USA TODAY analysis of 254 new laws in 45 states passed since then reveals the physical changes voters may notice and administrative changes happening behind the scenes. 

Zooming out to a bird's-eye-view of the nation, voters will collectively gain a net of eight days in early voting and receive a net reduction of in-person Election Day voting hours. But Americans overall will lose more than 160 days in absentee voting availability with the changes, which voting rights advocates describe as a startling cutback.

The changes largely reflect the divisions in today's American democracy. Roughly half the country supports tougher security measures on voting and clamping down on early vote-by-mail options, while the other half supports an evolving flexibility to ensure every voter can securely cast their ballot.

The impact of the new laws varies by voting precinct and key battleground states. Voters in Iowa, for instance, will lose nine days of early poll access. In total, about 55 million eligible voters live in states with changes that will give them less access.

“We showed in 2020 that we can make it easy for anyone to vote,” said Martin Luther King III, co-founder of Give Us the Ballot, a campaign to advance voting rights. "But there are some who’ve decided to take a different tack.”

In total, 2,723 bills have been introduced across the nation, according to a count by the left-of-center nonprofit Voting Rights Lab. Only a fraction, the 254, have been signed into law. 

USA TODAY utilized trackers like Voting Rights Lab and the Brennan Center in addition to bill text for this analysis. 

A breakdown by Voting Rights Lab shows that of the enacted laws, 107 are “pro-voter,” 45 are “anti-voter,” 75 are mixed or unclear and 27 are neutral. The group labeled bills that decrease voter access or representation as anti-voter.

The laws largely followed partisan divides among the states. Six of the seven that passed more restrictive voting laws were led by Republican governors, with the exception of Kansas, where Republican lawmakers overrode the vetoes of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Of the 17 "pro-voter" states, three are led by GOP governors, but two of them, Maryland and Vermont, have Democratic-controlled legislatures.

COVID-19 and election changes

Legislators coast to coast went to work after the pandemic-era election last year served as a fork in the voting road. They responded to election administrators maneuvering to adapt to COVID-19 realities for voters, said Liz Avore, vice president of law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab.

“States saw administrators using their flexibility to help voters, and 2020’s election actually was run very well,” Avore said. “Some states are pulling away that discretion and authority in the name of uniformity and security. Others are expanding or codifying that authority.”

In this Aug. 7, 2020, photo, a poll worker wears a protective shield and mask as she monitors a ballot drop box outside of a polling station in Miami Beach, Fla. Getting people to staff polling places amid the pandemic was a challenge in many states.

Virtually all steps of the election process have been changed in some form around the nation in the name of security or flexibility in what the group called “a new American fault line”:

  • Who can vote has changed in five states that now allow some felons access and seven states with tougher voter ID rules.
  • How absentee mail ballots are requested, filled out and physically slipped into a drop-box expanded in 27 states and became tighter in 13.
  • Early in-person poll access hours and days increased in 14 states, while Iowa, Georgia and Texas will trim that time.

Election Day itself will look different in some places, with consolidated or fewer poll locations accompanied by partisan poll monitors either added or subtracted, or physically moved 50 feet farther away in places like Florida, or with prohibitions on providing water for voters in line as in Georgia.

Still other states, including Kentucky, adopted measures to alleviate pressure on voters, such as adding “cure” procedures for mistakes on absentee ballots so they can be counted.

“In Kentucky, voting has never been as accessible and as secure in the 21 months of my term,” Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican who was elected in 2019, told the U.S. Senate Rules Committee during an Oct. 26 hearing. 

More recently, a wave of bills has tilted toward what Avore calls “subversion” by creating new regulations for election administration officials and turning the review process over to more partisan actors.

In this June 23, 2020, photo voting stations are set up in the South Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center for voters to cast their ballot in the Kentucky primary in Louisville, Ky.

“We thought these bills were more about voter access and security, but this trend of subversion is a threat to democracy,” Avore said. “We’re taking away authority from local administrators who have been doing this for years and giving it to partisans and third parties with these audits with no guardrails.”

More:'Election subversion' accusations: Donald Trump and allies look for new ways to challenge votes

Fourteen states have moved their election administration to partisan authority, and more than a dozen have added criminal penalties for election-related crime, including in Kansas, where it’s now a felony to return more than 10 advance ballots on behalf of others.

Voting rights groups like the States United Democracy Center say election officials will now be constantly working in fear of mistakes that could land them in jail without the funding or flexibility to respond to a crisis. After the vote tally, that work could still be attacked by partisan audits.

“Election hijacking and voter suppression go hand in hand. One is an effort to interfere with how elections are run,” said Joanna Lydgate, States United’s chief executive officer. “The other is an effort to block access to the ballot box itself. It’s all connected, they’re both ways to undermine the will of the American people.”

How a pandemic election and mistrust spurred changes

Conservative legislators who authored many of the election-related bills say they are aimed squarely at shoring up a process vulnerable to fraud and partisan chicanery.

Those efforts are ongoing. For example, in Michigan, legislators say they’re listening to voters who need them to restore trust in the election system.

“These reforms continue our efforts in the Michigan House to shore up our state’s elections process and give people faith in the results,” Michigan Rep. Matt Hall, a Republican, said in August, supporting proposals to ban connecting voting systems to the internet and to limit access to the state’s voter file. 

That sentiment about “election integrity” has reverberated in statehouses around the country.

Hall chaired a committee in December 2020 and ceded a three-hour witness questioning to former President Donald Trump campaign attorney Rudy Giuliani, who alleged voter fraud without evidence. Giuliani was temporarily barred from practicing law in New York State in June for making "false and misleading statements" about voter fraud in 2020.

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company Cyber Ninjas at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix on May 6.

Despite multiple recounts, civil lawsuits and audits, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Experts have called it one of the safest contests in U.S. history.

The MITRE Corporation, for instance, a nonprofit research group for several U.S. agencies, examined false claims about voting machines to ballot harvesting in eight battleground states during the 2020 election.

Its 43-page report found “no evidence of fraud, manipulation, or uncorrected error” in those states.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said “election integrity is now the law,” after signing his state’s sweeping changes in September

He dismissed concerns that the law is “anti-voter” and repeated a mantra from other conservative governors that the legislation “makes it harder for people to cheat” and that no eligible voter would be denied access by the law.

The bill prohibits some of the pandemic flexibilities used last year. It bans drive-thru voting or casting a ballot from inside a vehicle unless participating in curbside voting due to sickness or a disability. It also prohibits 24-hour and overnight voting by requiring polls to be open a minimum of nine hours from between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Changes like that are more about politics and a threat to their future jobs, than actual ballot security, said Jessica Levinson, an election law profess at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“We had an election, a Democrat (Biden) won because of high voter turnout. The demographics are not favorable to Republicans for the long term. The way to keep or garner more power is to limit the people who vote,” Levinson said. “Then we have the Big Lie. You can use the lie of voter fraud or corruption as cover to make it more difficult to vote.”

The "Big Lie" refers to unsubstantiated claims that Trump was the victim of voter fraud.

A drive-through ballot drop off location at an Austin, Texas, parking garage on Thursday October 1, 2020, shortly after an order was announced by Gov. Greg Abbott restricting such drop off locations.

Florida’s congressional primary will test a new law

Tuesday’s election in Palm Beach County, Florida will help decide the new congressional representative for the seat left open by the April death of Rep. Alcee  Hastings. Eleven Democrats are vying in the partisan primary ahead of a January general election in the heavily blue district.

It will also be the first election held in the wake of a sweeping new election law in the Sunshine State. 

The state needed that new law “to increase transparency and strengthen the security of our elections” according to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis when he signed it in May. He prohibited private donations from helping administer the elections, what he dubbed “Zuckerbucks,” referring to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s $100 million donation last October to help local election officials prepare nationwide.

Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

Stretching along the Atlantic Coast, Palm Beach County is the largest county geographically in the state but will have just four drop boxes for voters, down from eight due to the new law, which says the boxes need to be monitored in person.

“They’ve robbed voters of the chance to conveniently vote and added additional hurdles,” said Alex Berrios, a co-founder of Mi Vecino, a newly-formed Florida nonprofit aimed at registering Hispanic voters.

The sweeping new law passed in May makes other restrictions, too – to voter registration drives, absentee mail balloting requests, drop boxes, fixing errors on ballots, criminalization of election officials and voter ID. 

If drop boxes are left unmonitored, election supervisors can be fined $25,000. How the law will affect voter turnout won’t be known until after the election.

A day after last year's election DeSantis celebrated his state's smooth election, gave credit to local clerks and said other states should emulate Florida after it "vanquished the ghost of Bush v. Gore." 

“After an election that Gov. Ron DeSantis called perfect, this is a solution in search of a problem,” Berrios said. “Election supervisors are united in opposition and it makes elections harder and more expensive.”

Peach State ‘ground zero’ of 2021 election overhaul

Georgia was one of the first states to revamp its election protocols in the wake of the 2020 election, which had made it a hotbed of national protests and calls for corporate boycotts.

Among the more contested moves made by the Republican-controlled legislature was shrinking the request period for absentee ballots.

Georgians must ask for one at least 11 days before the election, when previously they could ask for one up until the Friday before an election.

The new law also requires voters to provide a driver’s license or state ID number when they seek and return an absentee ballot. If a person doesn’t have one they must attach a photocopy of other identification, such as a U.S. passport, military ID or utility bill, with their application.

The biggest change Georgia in-person voters will notice on Nov. 2 will be a prohibition on volunteers handing out food and drinks to people waiting in line to cast their ballot.

Election officials, instead, will be allowed to install self-serve water receptacles.

“We understand that we were ground zero,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, told USA TODAY. “We were the central focus of this country.”

Opponents spotlight how the new law reduced the number of drop boxes, which were used heavily in the metro Atlanta area during the 2020 contests. The latest Census figures show that 11-county region is currently 38.5% white; 36.1% Black; 13.1% Hispanic; and 7.7% Asian.

In 2020, drop boxes were placed outdoors and available 24 hours through Election Day. But Georgia's new law limits their use to inside early voting spaces and within early voting hours.

The drop boxes in each county have also been capped per 100,000 active registered voters or one for each early voting location in the county, whichever is smaller.

In the four core counties that make up the heart of metro Atlanta – Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett – and one-third of the state's entire Black population, the drop box locations will shrink from 111 to 23.

King, the eldest son of legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., said that may not be as overt as segregationist-era barriers, such as asking Black voters to identify the number of jelly beans in a jar, but it is meant to disproportionately impact those in urban centers.

“It is certainly strategically racist,” he said. “They were designed for the purpose of making sure particular voters have a more difficult time to vote.”

Impact of new laws will bear out over years

Progressive critics often cite Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election as the engine of the GOP pursuing more restrictive voting rules.

Election law changes aren’t just happening in battleground states where the 2020 presidential contest was close or heavily disputed, however.

In Kansas, for example, Trump defeated Biden by a comfortable 201,083 vote margin, or roughly 15 percentage points. 

Lawmakers still pursued a host of new regulations, most notably limiting out-of-state mailers and cracking down on “ballot harvesting”, which limits the number of ballots a person can bring to the polls on behalf of someone else. 

More:In 2022 midterms, a new 'Big Lie' battleground: secretary of state elections

One provision makes it a felony to impersonate an election official, which Kansas voting rights advocates have argued in court is written vaguely and criminalizes their registration efforts.

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a Topeka-based youth voting rights group, said it has always been illegal to impersonate an election official in Kansas. He said what’s different is the new regulations penalize conduct that causes another person to believe you are an election official.

Poll worker Jerry Young, disinfects a voter booth at the Soldier Township Fire Department Station No. 72, Tuesday morning, Nov. 3, 2020, in Soldier Township, Kansas.

“I can't really say what the motive is except it’s clearly a national Republican narrative, and the specifics of any state don’t matter,” Hammet said.

A Kansas judge in September denied an injunction request brought by Loud Light and others to temporarily block the law, saying someone has to “knowingly” impersonate an official to break the law.

But that gives little solace to Hammet’s group and others, who are pushing forward on lawsuits in state and federal court. In the meantime they have frozen all voter registration campaigns since the new rules took effect in July.

“We have no legal clarity, and it's also a felony charge, where in Kansas you can lose your right to vote,” Hammet said. “So we can't send out volunteers and staff to do what we understand to be engaging in criminal conduct under this law.”

Other smaller states that aren’t on the electoral map radar in 2024 are engaged in similar voting rights battles.

The ACLU of Arkansas conducted an analysis of one new voting law that prevents voters who do not have a photo ID from casting a provisional ballot by signing a sworn affidavit attesting to their identity as well as another new law that eliminates any exception to the photo ID requirement, including religious objections. 

The ACLU analysis found the law would have impacted at least 2,577 voters in the state who did not have a photo ID in the November 2020 election and signed a sworn affidavit to cast their ballot.

Arkansas also passed a law that moves back the deadline to return absentee ballots from the Monday before an election to the Friday before. 

“These bills, individually and collectively, inject more partisanship into our elections and restrict Arkansans’ right to vote,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said in a statement to USA TODAY. “We will be watching for the negative impacts these acts have on voters and taking any and all appropriate action to address them.”