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How State Democrats Saved the Election

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If you were able to vote early in person, vote by mail, or put your ballot in a drop box in November, you may have your Democratic state legislators to thank. Election laws vary across the country, and your state decides how easy it will be for you to vote. Keeping citizens safe at the polls, especially in the era of COVID-19, never should have been a partisan issue, but Republicans made it their mission to undermine democracy at every level of the ballot. Meanwhile, Democrats nationwide introduced election reforms with both the convenience and health of their constituents in mind. Here are the top states that were able to push through critically important voting legislation during the pandemic.

When the Virginia legislature flipped blue in 2019, Democrats made expanding voting rights a top priority. Before any of us had even heard of lockdowns or social distancing, this new majority had implemented no-excuse absentee ballots and a 45-day early vote window. That momentum gave the lawmakers a head start in adapting election laws to accommodate the pandemic, and they had passed sweeping reforms by mid-April. Among these was a provision that made Election Day a state holiday, taking the place of a holiday formerly devoted to confederate generals. By the time the second wave of the virus hit over the summer, Virginians were already much better prepared for the election than voters in many other states.

Delaware legislators knew they had to reexamine election logistics after a local referendum vote outside of Wilmington turned into a potential superspreader event in June. What they saw was clear: fewer precincts and fewer poll workers created longer lines and greater risk of spreading COVID-19. In response, the Democratic majority in the legislature gave everyone the opportunity to vote absentee without an excuse. For the primary, DLCC board member and House Majority Leader Val Longhurst sponsored a bill to automatically send voters their ballots in the mail — leading to record participation with over 15 times the number of absentee votes cast four years earlier. Besides public safety, Leader Longhurst cited state pride as a reason to pass this legislation and said Delaware should be a model for other states, not a ‘what went wrong?’ highlight on the news.

When the Democratic majority in Nevada passed voting reforms in the wake of the pandemic, it was done with impressive foresight. Lawmakers didn’t just respond to the current situation — they named November 2020 an “affected election” and developed a protocol that will apply to all future affected elections. This means that any time there’s an election while Nevada is in a state of emergency, every voter receives an absentee ballot in the mail. Think of it as an insurance policy so that next time disaster strikes, Nevadans won’t have to sacrifice their safety at the polls, and legislators can focus on the unfolding crisis instead of working to pass election relief all over again. Speaker of the assembly and DLCC board member Jason Frierson helped introduce this bill, and the new accommodations proved wildly popular. In the general election two years ago, less than 10% of the state’s votes were cast by mail, but in the 2020 primary, that number skyrocketed to 98% of all ballots cast.

Democrats’ commitment to accessible elections literally drove voter turnout in Vermont — at least 18 communities implemented drive-thru voting during the primary. The state’s Democratic majority also passed a slew of legislation that included automatically mailing ballots to every voter and the option to have someone else drop off your ballot for you. Local clerks shared the inventive spirit, with some precincts offering outdoor in-person polling booths during the state’s temperate August primaries. Even Vermont’s most resolute in-person voters could perform their civic duty while still helping to flatten the curve. Drive-thru voting made appearances in a few other states too, and this system will probably become more common in future election cycles. It’s safe, efficient, and can be especially helpful for people with disabilities and childcare responsibilities.

After the first wave of the virus slammed New York, the state postponed its April primary to June. The governor issued an executive order to allow for more mail-in voting while officials scrambled to adapt to the rapidly changing environment. After several weeks of tallying primary results, investigations revealed many voters had been disenfranchised by the US Postal Service’s errors. Tens of thousands of ballots were sent out too late to be returned in time, and many that did make it were deemed invalid because of technical issues like not receiving a postmark. Under the leadership of DLCC Board Chair and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the legislature was quick to zero in on solutions and passed a series of laws that would apply to the general election. They put in drop boxes at polling places, loosened postmark restrictions, and gave voters the opportunity to correct technical flaws after sending in their ballots. They also gave New Yorkers the ability to apply for an absentee ballot and expanded the early vote window.

Massachusetts’s old tradition of chiefly in-person voting was turned on its head after lawmakers watched chaos unfold at early 2020 primaries. This blue legislature quickly passed new laws to send voters absentee ballots and arrange blocks of time to vote early in person. But they also looked to states like Wisconsin for examples of what not to do as they drafted their election safety bill. Wisconsin held the first primary in pandemic-ravaged America purposely instituting virtually no precautions against the virus as a voter suppression tactic. After seeing how massive poll closures in Milwaukee disproportionately affected black voters, Senator Jamie Eldridge introduced a successful amendment to limit any last-minute changes to Massachusetts polling locations.

Like other New England states, Rhode Island Democrats took quick action to make absentee voting easier. With the help of a determined secretary of state and governor, new election reforms were passed post-primary, including pausing a law that required two witnesses or one notary to sign every absentee ballot. State leadership was in consensus — the rule was excessive at best, but downright dangerous during a pandemic. The Republican National Committee and Rhode Island Republican Party disagreed, taking the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled against the Republicans in a win for voting rights.

Back in May, Democrats in the Illinois legislature passed a comprehensive set of election laws that included mailing ballot applications to every voter. The House Democratic Women’s Caucus was a driving force behind this bill, and one of the measures they were most excited about was classifying election day a state holiday. With schools closed on November 3rd, several campuses served as polling locations, expanding the total number of places where people could vote — which minimized lines, wait times, and potential exposure to COVID-19.

New Mexico already allowed early and absentee voting, and participation by those methods continued to rise in 2020. Absentee ballots accounted for 63% of votes in the statewide primary, up from just 7% in the already high-turnout 2016 primary. That jump in absentee voting was even greater among Native American voters. In 2016, only 1% of voters in Native American precincts used an absentee ballot; in 2020 that number rose to 56%. While this showed how important vote-by-mail is, overall turnout in tribal precincts during the primary was down because of massive hurdles to vote, from long travel times to polling location closures to home addresses not recognized by the state. The legislature decided to convene ahead of the general election to resolve some of these issues. One law they passed prevented county clerks from closing or consolidating polling places on tribal land and required at least one voting location within the boundaries of each nation, tribe, or pueblo. Several locations on tribal lands had been shut down for the primary, but because of Democrats in the state legislature, polling places across tribal lands were open to ensure everyone’s voice could be heard.

So much of life will never fully go back to the way it was before this virus — but that’s great news for voting in blue states. Legislators all over are moving to codify election reform permanently into law, marking it as a high priority heading into the first sessions of 2021. The New York Senate is already taking advantage of their newly-elected supermajority to establish a permanent vote-by-mail option and a ballot-tracking website. And while this movement is flourishing in blue legislatures all over the country, the same can’t be said for states under GOP leadership. In the last ten months, we’ve watched Republican lawmakers trade both their constituents’ safety and their own integrity to win favor with Trump. If we want to see more progressive, practical, and timely leadership where public health and a fair democracy takes priority over greed and corruption, we need to continue to elect and protect state Democrats.