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On Nov. 8, there will be thousands of elections — each with different rules and laws

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we focus on the issues and what's at stake in these midterm elections, we decided to take a look at how voting itself has changed in many parts of the country since the last national election two years ago. We also want to consider what this could mean for the midterms and the next presidential election in 2024. And the first thing we need to point out is that there isn't actually one national election that's taking place on November 8 but thousands in counties and states across the nation, all of which have different rules and procedures.

Each week between now and Election Day, we'll be speaking with local reporters covering the changes to state voting laws and what that could mean for the nation as a whole. But we're going to start by explaining some of the trends that have taken hold in a number of states across the country. And to do that, we invited NPR voting correspondent Miles Parks, and he's with us now. Miles, thank you so much for joining us.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start by taking a look back at 2020 because that was an inflection point, right? A lot of things changed in the way we vote because we were in the thick of the pandemic. So what were some of the changes that happened then?

PARKS: Yeah. I don't think it's an exaggeration. I think down the road - decades down the road - we may look back on 2020 as one of the most important elections in American history. It really turned U.S. voting upside down. In 2016, the previous presidential election before 2020, about 60% of voters voted in person on Election Day. In 2020, due to the pandemic and people not wanting to be around crowds and wanting to social distance, that number torpedoed down to 30%, compared to 70% of voters who either voted by mail or voted in person early. And so since then, since that 2020 election, there's been kind of a reckoning happening all across the country as state legislatures think about whether to keep those changes in place.

MARTIN: OK. So big picture here because I know a lot of people will have heard sort of pieces of this story at one point and another - big picture - some state legislatures across the country expanded the ways in which residents can register to vote, and they expanded opportunities to vote. But a number of other states increased the number of requirements in order to register to vote and, is it fair to say, curtailed the places - the ways that you could vote?

PARKS: Absolutely. And I think it's fair to also say where legislatures and governors were controlled by Democrats, those were the states generally that decided to keep a lot of the voting changes from 2020. The states that decided to curtail some of those pandemic-related voting changes, those were Republican-led states. In terms of big picture trends when it comes to expansion, this year, in 2022, we're going to see more voting early in person than we ever have before in a midterm election. That's bipartisan. Republican-led states and Democrat-led states decided generally to expand early voting opportunities. In terms of restrictions, most of those voting restrictions targeted vote by mail. We know that there's been a misinformation campaign around vote by mail from the former President Trump and other Republicans. And so in a number of these states where restrictions happened, most of them targeted vote-by-mail systems.

MARTIN: And what do those restrictions look like?

PARKS: Well, so some of them were things like making vote by mail harder to apply for. Some of them affected how you turn in your vote-by-mail ballot. Drop boxes have been a big target. A number of states actually just decided to ban drop boxes altogether. Other states made it much harder for voting officials to use drop boxes.

MARTIN: Would you consider these big changes?

PARKS: Depends on the state and it depends on the voter. Then, I think, for the average voter - based on the amount of media attention that these voting changes have gotten, the average voter might be surprised to know, in most cases, their voting has either gotten easier or has stayed the same from 2020. It's just that in some of these states, for some voters, especially voters who want to vote by mail, those are going to be the voters who are going to be most affected by these changes.

MARTIN: And I think the question that a lot of people would have is, will these changes have an impact on the outcome of the midterm elections?

PARKS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that is a really hard question to answer. And that has been the question that people have been trying to answer as restrictive voting legislation has been enacted. You know, when we think about 10 years ago and voter ID laws were being enacted all across the country, it's still really - academic research has really not nailed down the exact, you know, partisan breakdown or impact of those sorts of changes on voting results. We know that they affect marginalized populations more, but we don't know how that affects election outcomes.

I think it's the same thing here. It's hard to say how this is going to affect midterm outcomes. Things that we're going to be watching, though - things like absentee ballot rejections. We know in states like Texas, where they have made it harder to vote by mail, they've added kind of more procedures that voters have to make sure they get right for their vote-by-mail ballot to count. In the Texas primary, we saw a huge uptick in rejections of vote-by-mail ballots. So that's going to be something we're watching across the country in these states that did decide to put more restrictions on vote by mail.

MARTIN: And what about places where changes are still in flux? I know that a lot of people have maybe heard a story or two about people challenging rules that were put into place. Maybe a judge stepped in and struck them down, or maybe a judge stepped in and delayed them.

PARKS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Are there places like that where the rules are still in flux?

PARKS: That's something we saw a lot in 2020 because we did have these rules changing kind of very, very quickly as voting officials were trying to respond to the pandemic. Generally, most states have their laws in place for the midterms at this point. One exception here - Montana. There is still a legal battle ongoing about some restrictive legislation that was passed there. And a judge just struck it down this month. So it's a little unclear, for instance, what the actual deadline for voters is to register to vote in Montana. But on a whole, most voters have their voting laws set in place at this point.

MARTIN: I want to ask about Georgia because Georgia has been the focus of a lot of attention, obviously, you know, for so many reasons. I mean, this was the state where President Trump called leaders there - you know, pressured them to find him more votes. It's been the focus of a lot of activity by activists. What do we think? I mean, is that - does it - does Georgia stand out in some way? And if so, how? Like, is it a test case for all these things that we're talking about, whether these changes suppress turnout or enhance turnout or they confuse people or they get people motivated to come out?

PARKS: Every election is kind of a learning point - right? - compared to the last one. I do think that Georgia is an interesting test case because there have been so many different things going on at the same time. A number of counties are actually expanding early voting. At the same time, voting by mail has gotten harder.

MARTIN: So an important example to be sure. We're going to be looking at it more closely, along with other states, over the next few weeks in the lead-up to the midterms. So, Miles Parks, thank you for starting us off. That's NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting. Miles, thank you.

PARKS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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