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Legislative Watch: Clearing a Path for the General Election

Voting by mail may have started during the Civil War, but the template for the 2020 general election is being created in real time. Legislators are working to bring clarity to vital details.

Primary election underway in Michigan on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (Joel Bissell | MLive)
The general election is three months away, and “unprecedented” is not a big enough word to encompass the known and unknown events ahead. Most troubling is what will be happening with the virus in November in each state and voting district. 

The past week foreshadows how wild the ride ahead could get. Within the space of a few days, the president condemned the governor of Nevada for signing a mail-in voting law and threatened a lawsuit, then encouraged voters in Florida to vote by mail despite months of tweets and public statements asserting that mail votes could not be trusted. Along the way, members of both parties expressed trepidation about the Post Office's ability to handle massive increases in mail ballots.

Election officials are determined to do their part, and to learn from one another and the difficulties experienced in COVID-era elections. A recent primary in Missouri went smoothly enough that the governor congratulated all involved for “a job well done.”

In the meantime, states continue to fine-tune the guidelines for their elections, attempting to identify and address vital details. Here are a few examples from scores of bills introduced since June:

Massachusetts H4820, enacted in July as an emergency law, establishes that any form of written request for a mail ballot will be treated as valid, requiring that any application be received on or before the seventh day preceding an election. It requires the Secretary of State to mail an application for early voting by mail by July 15, to every voter registered before July 1. It mandates a second mailing in September that includes all voters who registered before the beginning of that month, excluding those who have already applied for ballots. Among other provisions, it allows the use of secured municipal drop boxes for receipt of ballots.

Several Michigan bills address election issues. S0977 makes it a felony to request an absent voter application using the name of another person, or to attempt to obtain multiple ballots for one person. HB5991 lays out procedures to be followed if the signature on a ballot application does not match the signature on file, or it the application is unsigned. HB6001 sets out guidelines for the receipt, transfer and counting of ballots, including what is to be done if counting cannot be completed on election night. 

HR2, in Louisiana urges the governing authority of each public high school to organize a voter registration drive, underscoring the importance of citizen participation in representative democracy. It states that these drives can help students understand that voting is both a right and a responsibility, with registration drives providing an opportunity to bring civics to life.

Mississippi HB1802 establishes a pre-election day voting period beginning 20 days before any election held in 2020, as a means of reducing opportunities for exposure to COVID-19. It also calls for extended hours at polling places during the last full week preceding an election.

New York is another state with numerous bills on the table. For example: S8846 notes that allowing electronic application for absentee ballots is efficient and convenient, and proposes that it should be allowed even after the period of the pandemic. A10724 requires the board of elections to provide a secure web-based system that voters can use to track the progress of absentee ballots, from the moment of request to the counting of the ballot. S8506 aims to prevent ballot harvesting by establishing what is required if a person wishes to apply for an absentee ballot pm behalf another voter. It would make ballot harvesting a class D felony.

Kentucky BR158 relates to campaign finance transparency. It would create public disclosure requirements regarding funding sources for “internet announcements” that advocate for the election or defeat of political candidates. 

Tennessee HR0352 seeks support for the position that an order from Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle allowing all registered voters to vote absentee is “an unconstitutional usurpation of legislative authority.”

HF116 in Minnesota would restore the right to vote to persons convicted of a felony when they have completed their sentence, or in cases a sentence does not include incarceration. If the individual is subsequently convicted of another felony, the right to vote will only be suspended during the period of their incarceration. 

B23-0864, from the Council of the District of Columbia, amends the district’s Election Code. It requires the Board of Elections to operate at least 80 polling places for the November election, including one for those incarcerated in detention and correctional facilities. Among other provisions, it mandates the mailing of a ballot and postage-paid return envelope, voter guide and election information guide to every registered voter.

Powered by Quorum. Map will update as new bills are introduced.

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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