© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
🎧 We met our goal for the Spring Membership Drive! Thank you to everyone who contributed! ❤️

New data shows it's gotten easier to vote in the U.S. since 2000

Loading...

For all the concern in recent years that U.S. democracy is on the brink, in danger or under threat, a report out Tuesday offers a glimmer of good news for American voters worried that casting a ballot will be difficult in 2024.

Put simply, the new data shows that voting in America has gotten easier over the past two decades. More voters have the ability to cast a ballot before Election Day, with the majority of U.S. states now offering some form of early in-person voting and mail voting to all voters.

"Although we often talk in a partisan context about voter fraud and voter suppression and whether voters have access to the ballot, the reality is, over the past 25 years, we've greatly increased the convenience of voting for almost all Americans," said David Becker, the founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), which authored the new report.

The research was inspired by an NPR request for historical data around voting access, and NPR is the first news organization to report the findings.

The data shows that, despite real efforts by some Republican-led legislatures to restrict access at the margins, the trend in the U.S. since 2000 has been toward making it easier to vote: Nearly 97% of voting-age American citizens now live in states that offer the option to vote before Election Day.

"The lies about early voting, the lies about voting machines and efforts in some state legislatures to roll back some of the election integrity and convenience measures that have evolved over the last several decades, those efforts almost all failed," Becker said. "In almost every single state, voters can choose to vote when they want to."

Forty-six states and Washington, D.C., offer some form of early in-person voting, the report tallied, and 37 of those jurisdictions also offer mail voting to all voters without requiring an excuse.

The analysis focused on broad categories around how people are able to vote, but did not take into consideration more specific voting policies that have sparked partisan debate in recent years, like mailing ballots to all registered voters, how mail ballots can be returned and ID requirements.

Chris Mann, CEIR's research director, said he thought many people may be surprised at the bigger picture reflecting access, because those other voting policies have taken so much of the political focus in recent years.

There are some political trends that show up in the data. Of the 14 states that don't offer mail voting to all voters, for instance, 12 have Republican-led legislatures.

But maybe the more striking trends are geographic. Every single state in the western U.S. has offered some form of early and mail voting to all voters since 2004, according to the data. And those states span the political spectrum, from conservative Idaho to liberal California.

"It's really hard to talk about partisanship around this issue because historically there just hasn't been much," Mann said. "We've seen voting by mail and early in-person voting supported by Republican legislatures, Democratic legislatures, Republican governors, Democratic governors. We see voters in both parties use both methods."

In other parts of the country, like the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, it took reforms driven by the COVID pandemic to move toward more ballot access.

In 2020, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts all made changes to make voting more easily accessible, which have since partially or fully become permanent. Delaware is currently embroiled in a legal fight over whether it can implement early and mail voting changes this election cycle as well.

The South, with its history of slavery and Jim Crow laws, has long lagged behind when it comes to voting access. The CEIR data shows that, although some states have slowly started expanding options for voters, generally it is still the most difficult region for voters to cast a ballot.

Loading...

As options nationwide have become more widely available, voters have also responded by taking advantage.

In the 2000 election, 86% of voters voted at a polling place on Election Day, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

In 2020, during the pandemic, that number dropped to less than 31% of voters. It went back up in 2022, to roughly half of the electorate, but was still in line with the two-decade trend toward more ballots being cast early.

Loading...

In 2024, it's a bit unclear if that trend will continue. Former President Donald Trump and his supporters have worked to demonize mail voting, and at times implored Republican voters to vote on Election Day or as close to it as possible to avoid unproven claims of tampering.

But in reality, Becker says, more voting options actually make elections more secure and less susceptible to malicious activity or even human error.

"If there were a problem, if there were a cyber event, if there were a malfunction, if there were bad weather, if there were traffic, if there were was a power outage, you could think of all kinds of circumstances. ... The more you spread voting out over a series of days and over multiple modes, the less likely it's going to impact voters," he said.

Still, even in states where voters have numerous options on how to vote, in every federal election tens of millions of eligible voters in the U.S. don't cast ballots. Even in 2020, the highest-turnout election in modern history, roughly a third of eligible Americans didn't vote.

Shirley Weber, the secretary of state of California, says more and more that's a reflection of people not feeling empowered or motivated by the system, and not by how hard it is to cast a ballot. Election experts have generally agreed that in 2024, efforts to delegitimize election results are more worrisome than efforts to actually stop people from voting.

"We've done everything, I think, humanly possible to make it possible for people to vote," Weber said. "[In California] you will get a ballot mailed to your home. It does not require a stamp. If you lose it and call us, we'll send you another one. If you go to a vote center, you will be able to get a new ballot and vote right there if you want to."

Still, the state places near the bottom of the U.S. rankings when it comes to turnout rate.

"What we have to do now is help people understand that voting is important, whether their candidate wins or loses," she said. "[You're] voting for yourself basically to have the dignity of having your issues being considered and whether you win or lose, people listen to your voice and they hear you."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.