A US presidential election is, as the political science geeks like to point out, really 50 separate state elections, each one in a winner-take-all format. With the US national election day less than two months away, it seemed like a good time to review some (occasionally controversial) differences across how these state elections are conducted, which are compiled by the National Council of State Legislatures and available on its website.

Voter ID

The first five states to require voter ID were South Carolina (in 1950), Hawaii (1970), Texas (1971), Florida (1977) and Alaska (1980).  But during the last 15 years or so, the trend is clearly toward a a rising number of states imposing such requirements.
graph of voter ID enactments 2000 - 2014

The NCSL makes a couple of key distinctions between these laws. One is whether the requirement is for a photo ID (like a driver\’s license) or a non-photo ID (like a bank statement). Another distinction is whether the law is \”non-strict\” or \”strict.\” Pretty much all voter ID laws offer some ways in which people without an ID can cast a provisional ballot, but the difference is whether that ballot will then be counted without further action by the voter (\”non-strict\”), or whether the person casting the ballot needs to do something after election day, like return to an election office and show a valid ID, before their ballot will be counted (\”strict\”). A state-by-state list of voter ID rules is available here at the NCSL website.

Absentee and Early Voting

States do offer some options for those who can\’t or don\’t want to vote on election day, but these options vary considerably. The NCSL summarizes in this way:

  1. Early Voting: In 37 states (including 3 that mail ballots to all voters) and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. No excuse or justification is required. … 
  2. Absentee Voting: All states will mail an absentee ballot to certain voters who request one. The voter may return the ballot by mail or in person. In 20 states, an excuse is required, while 27 states and the District of Columbia permit any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering an excuse. Some states offer a permanent absentee ballot list: once a voter asks to be added to the list, s/he will automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections.
  3. Mail Voting: A ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary). In-person voting sites may also be available for voters who would like to vote in-person and to provide additional services to voters. Three states mail ballots to all eligible voters for every election. Other states may provide this option for some types of elections.

The specific rules for early and absentee voting vary considerably across states, as well. Fopr example, the average starting time for early voting is 22 days before an election, but it varies across states from as much as 45 days before to just four days before. The average early voting period average is 19 days, but again, this varies across states from four to 45 days. Some states require that you give an approved reason for requesting an absentee ballot, while other will give an abstentee ballot to anyone who requests one. A state-by-state list of these rules is available here.

Same Day or Online Registration

\”Thirteen states plus the District of Columbia presently offer same-day registration (SDR), allowing any qualified resident of the state to go to the polls or an election official\’s office, either before or on Election Day, register to vote, then cast a ballot, all in that day. California, Hawaii and Vermont have enacted same-day registration but have not yet implemented it.  In most other states, voters must register by a deadline prior to Election Day. The deadline varies by state, with most falling between eight and 30 days before the election. …\”

\”As of June 14, 2016 a total of 31 states plus the District of Columbia offer online registration, and another seven states have passed legislation to create online voter registration systems, but have not yet implemented them.\”

Rules about Recounts

\”43 states permit a losing candidate, a voter, a group of voters or other concerned parties to petition for a recount. In a few states, the vote totals for the top two candidates must be within a specified margin in order for the losing candidate to be able to request a recount. For example, in Idaho, a candidate may petition for a recount if the difference between the requesting and winning candidates is less than 0.1 percent of the total votes cast for the office. In at least five states, a political party officer can request a recount, and in at least 17 states, a voter can petition for a recount. … In most of the states that permit a candidate or other interested party to demand a recount, the petitioner is required to pay a deposit toward the cost of conducting the recount. If the recount reverses the result of the election, that person’s deposit is refunded. If the recount does not change election results, the petitioner is required to pay most of the costs associated with the recount. Automatic recounts are paid for by the state or county that conducts the recount.\”

There are many other differences in how states conduct elections: for example, differences in voter registration, how lists of eligible voters are maintained, the rules about primary elections, the number of polling stations on election day and the hours they are open, the qualifications for poll-watchers, the ways in which paper or electronic voting equipment is used, and more.

It\’s useful to consider this wide variation across states, in part because for many of us it tends to challenge our preconceptions about how voting should happen.  For example, it seems to me that voting by mail has the potentially important problem that many voters will find it harder to cast a truly secret ballot. But clearly residents of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington disagree. I\’m not a big fan of early voting rules, because I think there\’s some value to people having a chance to change their minds right up to election day, rather than being pressured to lock in their vote early, but many states clearly disagree with this view. My home state of Minnesota tends to pat itself on the back for not having a voter ID law, but it\’s a useful exercise in humility to remember that most other states disagree on the merits of such a rule.

In some ways, the differences across states in voting are a litmus test for how you feel about a federalist country in which state and local governments have a substantial degree of autonomy on many issued, including administration of elections, or whether you tend to favor greater control by the central government.

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