What 2020 Did — And Didn’t — Change About How Americans Vote

In the ongoing experiment that is democracy, every election creates ripple effects for the ones to follow. But occasionally there is an election cycle so disruptive, it changes practically everything. We saw it in 2000, when the contested presidential results in Florida led to a complete overhaul of America’s election infrastructure. The 2020 election was the latest watershed moment. The COVID-19 pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election led to an avalanche of changes in how Americans vote. 

The way Americans cast their ballots, who is charged with running elections, what restrictions there are on voting and the very infrastructure used to run elections — all were impacted by this unprecedented cycle. While there’s been a lot of focus, including from yours truly, on changes that negatively impacted the election system and those who work within it — reduced trust in results, threats to election officials, shifting norms of political decorum, new voting restrictions — there were positive changes, too. And some recent changes in the way Americans vote that on the surface appear to have been influenced by 2020 may not have been after all. It’s not that 2020 made voting conclusively better or worse, just different, and as we head into the first post-2020 presidential election, those changes will become all the more apparent.

One of the most striking aspects of the 2020 election was the unprecedented use of mail-in voting. Nearly half (43 percent) of all voters cast a ballot by mail in 2020, a record share, according to the latest Survey of the Performance of American Elections, a post-election poll of tens of thousands of registered voters run by MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III. Much of this was driven by COVID-19 — states changed voting rules and requirements to make it easier to vote by mail, and voters hoping to avoid crowded polling places in the middle of a pandemic took advantage. In the 2022 midterms, use of mail-in voting dropped but was still higher than pre-2020 levels: In the 2018 midterms, 23 percent of voters cast a ballot by mail, while 32 percent did in 2022. But this rise in the popularity of voting by mail actually predates 2020 — an increasingly larger share of voters have cast their ballot this way in every election since 1996. So did 2020’s anomalous expansion of mail-in voting accelerate this trend, or would it have continued on this trajectory regardless?

“It’s hard to infer causality in any of this, to rerun the last four years of history without the pandemic,” Stewart said. “It is striking, though, when you look at the time trend, if you just remove 2020 it looks like 2022 is not too far from where the trend would have been. It’s reasonable to argue that 2020 had less of a long-term impact on voting by mail and voting in person than we might have guessed in 2020.” 

But one thing 2020 did have an impact on is who was voting by mail. Even as states moved to expand mail-in voting in response to the pandemic, Trump was sowing doubt about the legitimacy and security of this method of voting. This led to a noticeable partisan split in voting methods. According to the SPAE, in 2020, 60 percent of Democrats reported voting by mail, compared with 32 percent of Republicans. And this divide persisted into the 2022 midterms as Trump (and many Republicans actually on the ballot that year) clung to his claims of a stolen election: In 2022, 46 percent of Democrats reported voting by mail, compared with 27 percent of Republicans.

Voting method hasn’t always been polarized by party, Stewart explained. In previous elections, both Republicans and Democrats voted by mail in roughly the same proportion, and in the early days of mail-in voting, it was actually Republican voters who were more likely to cast their ballots this way. And while some GOP campaigns are reportedly hoping to restore trust among Republican voters and get them to embrace this method of voting, it’s tough to put the toothpaste back in the tube. While 87 percent of registered voters supporting Democratic candidates said they were very or somewhat confident that mail-in or absentee ballots would be counted accurately, just 37 percent of registered voters supporting Republican candidates did, according to a Pew Research Center survey from October 2022 — the same share that reported confidence in mail-in or absentee voting before the 2020 election, which suggests that these are views that linger. 

The 2020 election did more than change perspectives on mail-in voting — it also led to widespread changes in the laws surrounding it. Following the 2020 election, there was an unprecedented surge in election legislation introduced at the state level, some to expand voter access and some to restrict it. Regulations surrounding mail-in voting represented the largest share of new voting-related legislation introduced in the first quarter of 2021, according to a report from Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan organization that tracks election-related legislation at the state level. As of March 31, 2021, bills related to mail-in voting accounted for 44 percent of the total bills Voting Rights Lab was tracking at that time. In 2021 and 2022, 39 states enacted legislation related to mail-in voting — 25 states expanded access, 11 restricted it and three did a bit of both. And so far this year, 63 new mail-in voting laws were enacted — 35 that expanded access, 13 that restricted it and 15 that had a mixed, unclear or neutral impact, according to Voting Rights Lab’s tracker

“It’s hard to see the intentions [behind these laws], but we do see an alignment in the timing, and we don’t think that’s altogether coincidental [that these laws were passed] coming out of the 2020 election where we did see a sharp rise in mail voting and early voting,” said Megan Bellamy, the vice president of law and policy for Voting Rights Lab.

Nationwide, the number of new laws that expand voter access has outpaced the number of laws that restrict it, and not only when it comes to voting by mail. But at the state level, there have been stark differences in the kinds of laws passed. In 2021 and 2022, 23 states generally expanded voting access, 11 states generally restricted it and six states enacted legislation with mixed outcomes, according to the Voting Rights Lab. While states like California and Nevada passed laws to proactively send mail ballots to all active registered voters, for example, states like Texas, Georgia and Florida added new requirements to mail-ballot applications, making it even harder for voters to use this method.

Sometimes, especially with expansive omnibus voting bills, a state would enact a law that simultaneously expanded access (say, by increasing the number of days of early voting) and restricted it (say, by introducing new voter-ID requirements), Bellamy said. Along with those changes to mail-in voting, several states have moved to purge inactive voters from their rolls more often or expand the criteria for when a voter is purged (such as not having voted in the last two elections). There has also been a trend of restoring voting rights to felons

The result is a patchwork of voting laws even more variegated than our famously decentralized voting system was before 2020: Not only has the voting process been transformed since 2020, but it’s been transformed in different ways for different states. Many voters, particularly those who haven’t cast a ballot since the last presidential election, will be going to the polls under very different regulations than the last time. 

Once at the polls, those voters may be encountering a different environment than before 2020 as well. Trump’s claims of a stolen election led many Americans to lose trust in their election system, leading some to threaten or harass election officials. In turn, some of those officials stepped down or retired early, and in their place, a new wave of partisan, election-denying officials have emerged. Though the vast majority of election administrators remain nonpartisan civil servants, a handful of bad actors now charged with running our elections has already led to disruptions in 2022 and may lead to more in 2024. 

It goes beyond spreading conspiracy theories or publicly questioning election results — some of these officials have taken actions that jeopardized the integrity of elections. In a review of behavior by election officials in six states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), Informing Democracy, a nonprofit that researches vote-counting and certification, identified 94 local officials who had violated their non-discretionary duty through actions such as voting against certifying elections in their jurisdictions or allowing outside access to voting equipment. For example, two members of the board of supervisors in Cochise County, Arizona, refused to vote to certify local election results in 2022 in protest of the results in a different Arizona county, until a judge ordered them to do so. 

At the end of the day, the results of the 2022 election were certified across the country and the rightful winners sworn into office. But Peter Bondi, the managing director of Informing Democracy, said these disruptions still have an impact.

“There is a real danger here,” Bondi said. “The disruptions cause delay, and delay has a couple consequences. One is shaking public confidence in the election, which only fuels more conspiracy concerns. And two is [missing] real deadlines that need to be followed.” 

The lingering distrust in elections — and in particular electronic voting equipment — has led some voters to call for our election infrastructure to be overhauled. This is one area where, by and large, 2020 did not seem to disrupt existing trends. Even before 2020, more and more jurisdictions were moving away from paperless voting machines to paper ballots marked by voters (either by hand or using a ballot-marking device), which has long been the recommendation from election-security experts. That trend has continued, according to Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization that tracks election technology used across the country. In 2018, 71.9 percent of registered voters lived in a jurisdiction that used voter-marked paper ballots. In 2020, 88.5 percent did, and heading into 2024, 94.1 percent of registered voters now live in a jurisdiction that uses paper ballots. 

“The larger trend is that paperless systems continue to be phased out,” said Mark Lindeman, policy and strategy director of Verified Voting. “I don’t detect any clear signs that that trend has accelerated since 2020.”

Where 2020 has had an influence is in the push for hand-counting ballots. Distrusting machines, some voters have demanded their local election offices abandon the optical scanners used to tally ballots in most of the country in favor of human hand counts, something that security experts don’t recommend due to the high risk of error. While a handful of jurisdictions have made the switch (or, in the case of Nye County, Nevada, introduced hand counts in addition to optical scanners), overall, Lindeman said, the trend since 2020 has still been to move away from hand counts. Over 500 precincts representing more than 230,000 voters have moved away from hand counts since 2020 so far, compared to just four jurisdictions representing about 2,900 registered voters that moved from optical scanners to hand counts.

“At this moment it’s an 80-to-1 ratio against the hand-count movement, which tracks with my experience going back to 2005,” Lindeman said. “Actual hand-count jurisdictions are gradually drifting away from that method.”

Nearly every aspect of voting — from the rules surrounding it, to the method used to cast a ballot, to how those ballots are counted — has been transformed over the past several years. Some of this upheaval can be chalked up to the extraordinary circumstances and reaction to the 2020 election, but some is just the natural evolution of our ever-changing election system. Altogether, it means that, in 2024, voters will show up to the voting booth (or crack open the envelope containing their ballot!) facing a very different landscape than the one they encountered four, or certainly eight, years prior. And we probably don’t yet fully know how that will affect the election.

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