Voting is considered a cornerstone of any democracy. In the United States, the Constitution places the “times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives” in the hands of the states.
In other words, voting technology decisions are in the hands of states. This very decentralized election administration system means that no state runs its elections exactly like another state.
Georgia made national headlines last year (on 25 March 2021) when Governor Brian Kemp (R) “signed into law a sweeping Republican-sponsored overhaul of state elections that includes new restrictions on voting by mail and greater legislative control over how elections are run.”
The Georgia law requires a photo ID in order to vote absentee by mail, after more than 1.3 million Georgia voters used that option during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also cuts the time people have to request an absentee ballot and limits where ballot drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed…
The law replaces the elected secretary of state as the chair of the state election board with a new appointee of the legislature after Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s election results. It also allows the board to remove and replace county election officials deemed to be underperforming.
Rolling Stone compared the November 2021 election with that of November 2020:
Georgians who obtained mail-in ballots in 2021 were twice as likely to have them rejected… the number of drop boxes in the four metro Atlanta counties [decreased] from 97 in 2020 to 23 in 2021. Another potential reason for ballots being rejected was missing or incorrect identification information, which in some cases could be due to changed ID requirements…
Lastly, 2.19 percent of Georgians who requested mail-in ballots in 2021 ended up not voting at all. This might not sound like a lot, but that percentage is just under 44 times greater than the percentage of Georgians who requested a ballot, were denied it, and didn’t vote in 2020.
In 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states passed 34 bills making it more difficult to vote than in 2020. States passed more restrictive voting laws in 2021 than in any year since the Center began tracking legislation in 2011. At least 152 restrictive bills in 18 states carried over into the 2022 legislative sessions
Four states, Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Texas, all passed sweeping, omnibus election bills with long lists of new and more stringent restrictions. Seven states imposed harsher voter ID requirements, while seven states shrunk the time frame for requesting mail ballots. Four states limited the use of mail ballot drop boxes, and seven states made it easier for citizens to be purged from the voter rolls.
The Brennon Center is tracking 2022 legislative action. As of mid-January 2022, legislators in at least 27 states had carried over, pre-filed or introduced more than three times as many restrictive voting bills as in mid-January 2021: more than 250 bills versus 75.
A history of voting technology
Most states used voice voting into the early 19th century, which is when the first paper ballots began appearing.
In the beginning, paper ballots were nothing more than scraps of paper upon which the voter scrawled his candidates’ names and dropped into the ballot box. Newspapers began to print out blank ballots with the titles of each office up for vote which readers could tear out and fill in with their chosen candidates.
Eventually, the political parties began printing ballots; “color helped observers identify party ballots as they were cast.” Privacy was not considered.
During the Civil War, mailed paper ballots allowed 150,000 Union soldiers to vote. Cries about fraud came from the opposition party (the Democrats of that era are the Republicans today).
After the Civil War, the states began producing an official, government-produced “blanket paper ballot, which listed all candidates for office. New York and Massachusetts were the first states to adopt this new “Australian paper ballot” in 1888.
Voter registration also came about in the late 1800s. Basic information — name, address, voting record, data of birth — is considered public record and may be free for the asking, so long as the use isn’t “commercial.”
We migrated from paper ballots — easily recounted and transparently cast by voters — to “black boxes.” From gear-and-lever machines to punch cards and hanging chads, voters had to cast ballots that they could not review for accuracy.
Controversy over punch card voting in Florida in 2000 led to one of the rare instances of Congress intervening in voting technologies. Replacement of gear-and-lever and punch card voting systems was one of the goals of the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
Initially, that technological change shifted voters from one black box to another because touchscreen computers produced no paper copy of the vote cast. Voters again had to trust that their votes were cast as they had intended.
All states had processes for voting should someone be unable to vote on Election Day. Some of those states allowed voters to register permanently absentee, which meant that they would always receive a ballot in the mail. The cost of running parallel voting systems: one for in-person voting, which involved thousands of computers warehoused for most of the year, and one for vote-by-mail, which involved a different method of tallying votes.
Oregon was the first state to vote 100% by mail, followed by Washington. Now California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Vermont as well. We are coming full circle, returning to easily cast and easily recounted paper ballots.
States with vote-by-mail systems also have in-person voting centers for those who need assistance or who wish to vote in person.
Vote by mail enfranchises voters by making it easier to vote, especially for those who cannot easily take time off from work.
It eliminates notoriously long voting lines. Note that Georgia has made it illegal under certain conditions to provide water for people waiting in line to vote when it’s scorching outside:
The law makes it a misdemeanor to give away food or water within 150 feet of the outer edge of a polling place building or within 25 feet of any voter in line. Violations of this law are punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. While people other than poll workers can give away food or water, they have to adhere to these boundaries to avoid breaking the law.
And as the Brennon Center reported in October 2020, “[v]oter fraud related to mail ballots is virtually nonexistent thanks to numerous safeguards.”