State of Elections

William & Mary Law School | Election Law Society

Historic Change Again on the Horizon in Mississippi-Part II

By: Tamikia Carr Vasquez

In November, Mississippi voters will have the opportunity to vote on removing a Jim Crow era provision from the state’s constitution. Currently, to win certain statewide offices, a candidate must win the majority of the popular vote and win a majority of Mississippi’s 122 House districts. The Mississippi Center for Justice is at the forefront of leading the effort to abolish this procedure. In 2019, the Center worked on a federal lawsuit against the state. I recently spoke with Vangela M. Wade, President and CEO of the Center. This is the second and final part of our conversation. In Part I, we discussed the background of the current electoral process.

TCV: So this brings me to my next question: I’m in an election law class this semester and we’ve been talking about Baker v. Carr, one person one vote, and Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections which eliminated poll taxes in state elections, and we talked about Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. With all of that precedent, how is it that in 2020 this state constitutional provision remains constitutional?
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North Carolina’s HB 1169, Part 2: The Witness Requirement Saga Reduces to “Chaos”

By: Forrest Via

As discussed previously, the North Carolina General Assembly passed HB 1169 this summer to, in part, loosen absentee-ballot requirements in response to COVID-19: The legislation lowered the state’s absentee-ballot witness-signature requirement to one person. For some, this change was not enough—the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans filed suit against the State Board of Elections, arguing the presence of any witness requirement violated the state constitution due to the circumstances presented by the pandemic.

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California Officials Clash With Republican Party Over Unauthorized Ballot Drop Boxes

By Sam Petto

In early October, a controversy was brewing in California as officials launched legal threats against the California Republican Party for its use of “unauthorized” ballot drop boxes. Finding the California Republican Party set up over 100 unauthorized, non-official drop boxes in the state, California officials sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that GOP officials hand over ballots, disclose the locations of its unauthorized boxes, and cease current ballot collection practices to prevent voter confusion.

In their letter, officials claimed only county officials had the authority to determine the number, location, and hours of availability for drop boxes, and that state law established rules requiring designated ballot retrievers to collect and return ballots. Additionally, the state claimed that the GOP’s boxes violated laws requiring a third-party ballot collector to have their name, signature, and relationship to the voter listed on the ballot pursuant to Elections Code Section 3011(a).Californians have to know who they are signing their ballot over to if they are not depositing it into an official drop box. Here, state officials argued they did not know.

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The Legal Necessity of Machines for Voting by Mail

By Anthony Scarpiniti

In the age of Covid-19, social distancing, and staying at home, the “norms” of society are no longer normal. Because of the recent November election, many states adjusted or expanded their absentee and mail-in voting procedures. According to a Pew Research Center survey, approximately two-thirds of Americans support the ability to vote absentee or early without a specific reason. Even President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump requested mail-in ballots for the Florida Republican primary election in August.

While many Americans support absentee and mail-in voting in theory, in order for them to work in practice, the United States Postal Service (USPS) had to be prepared for the large influx of ballots. During the 2019 holiday season, the USPS sorted and delivered approximately “2.5 billion pieces of First-Class Mail,” and this was just in one week. This breaks down to about 500 million letters per day. The Census Bureau estimated that the voting age population in the United States was about 245.5 million citizens in 2016, and only about 157.6 million of them were registered to vote. Between the holiday season and a hypothetical election held completely via the mail, it is a fair assumption that the USPS is much busier during the holiday season.

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No Voter Left Behind? The Quiet Disenfranchisement of Native Americans

By Scott Meyer

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs website contains a list of frequently asked questions. Among them, “[d]o American Indians and Alaska Natives have the right to vote?” The simple answer, yes, belies the complex relationship between the indigenous peoples of North America, and the United States.

In 1924, the U.S. passed the Snyder Act, which entitled Native Americans born in the U.S. to full citizenship. Ostensibly the 15th amendment, which was passed more than fifty years earlier and granted U.S. citizens the right to vote, combined with the Snyder Act should have allowed Native Americans to vote. In practice, since the Constitution delegated to the states the administration of elections, several decades passed after the Snyder Act before Native Americans actually received national suffrage. The final two holdouts were Utah and North Dakota, which granted “on-reservation Native Americans the right to vote in 1957 and 1958, respectively”. However, even after gaining the right to vote, Native Americans faced many of the same challenges employed against African-Americans to stymie their votes. The passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), often associated with protecting African-American voters, also benefitted many American Indians who lived in covered states or counties, such as Alaska and Arizona. For decadesNative Americans filed lawsuits relying on the 14th and 15th amendment and various sections of the VRA to “gainequal access to election procedures and to have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”

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Delaware’s Emergency House Bill: Is It Junk Mail (Updated)?

Mailbox

By: Andrew Jeacoma

On July 1, 2020, Delaware Governor John Carney signed House Bill 346 (“HB 346”) into law. HB 346—as a response to COVID-19—grants all Delaware citizens the ability to vote by mail in the upcoming 2020 general election. The bill is a departure from the constitutional rule of voting-by-mail established by Article V, Section 4A  of Delaware’s Constitution, which limited mail-in-voting to those who qualified under an exhaustive list.

In response to HB 346, The Republican State Committee of Delaware (the “RSC”) filed a complaint on August 19, 2020, against the state of Delaware Department of Elections and its commissioner, Anthony J. Albence. In their complaint, the RSC framed HB 346 as unconstitutional for three principle reasons: first, it goes against the already established constitutional rule governing absentee ballots. Second, in passing HB 346 the General Assembly impermissibly sought to amend the constitution. Third, the universal voting by mail envisioned by HB 346 has numerous practical problems that result in voter disenfranchisement. See here for a more thorough report on RSC’s complaint.

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Indiana’s Noon Absentee Deadline: Election Officials Report Slow Counting, but No Major Problems

By Emma Merrill

Many Indiana voters were alarmed by Indiana’s voting procedures during the state’s June 2, 2020 primary election—Indiana’s first attempt at a statewide election during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I just got completely disenfranchised,” one voter reported after confronting a polling place that lacked the resources to deal with unprecedent mail-in voter turnout. Another Hoosier described Indiana’s election system as “completely overwhelmed.”

Indiana state law mandates that mail-in ballots must be received by noon on Election Day to be counted. Ind. Code § 3-11.5-4-3. In the run-up to Indiana’s primary, Indiana Democrats lobbied the Republican state administration to extend Indiana’s noon deadline for absentee ballots—to no avail. While Republican Governor Eric Holcomb did issue an Executive Order that shifted the primary date from May 3 to June 2, state Republicans refused to change the absentee ballot deadline’s noon requirement. Ultimately, over ten times as many Indiana voters used mail-in absentee ballots compared to the 2016 presidential primary. The surge in absentee voting resulted in processing and delivery delays for approximately 1800 voters’ mail-in ballots in Marion County, home to a significant community of minority voters. The state election system failed to cope with the pandemic, and voters were disenfranchised as a result.

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The Cost of an Absentee Ballot

By Timmer McCroskey

Be honest, when was the last time you went to the post office? For me, it’s been at least six months since I physically went into any post office. With the ability to buy postage labels online and drop off packages in blue boxes located throughout my town, I rarely need to go into a physical location. Next question, do you have stamps on hand? I do, but only because I try to send my Grandma a card every month. For many people, especially in rural Wyoming, the post office isn’t a frequent stop on the errand list and not everybody has a reason (or funds) to purchase stamps. However, to mail in an absentee ballot in Wyoming, you are required to place the correct amount of postage on the envelope. Wyoming is one of 33 states that does not pay for the return postage of an absentee ballot.

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I voted but it didn’t count–How Florida mail-in ballot problems could disenfranchise thousand of voters

By: Sayo Aweomoni

With the prevalence of COVID–19, it is no doubt that the 2020 presidential election will look very different from any other election America has ever had. As more citizens become concerned for their health and safety, states are set to experience an unprecedented number of voters casting mail in ballots during the upcoming presidential election, but as more people vote by mail, there is a risk of having a large number of ballots go uncounted. These concerns are exacerbated in swing states like Florida, where there is a long history of high rejection rates for mail in ballots.


According to election law experts, people voting for the first time by mail are more likely to make mistakes that could lead to their votes being rejected. As the amount of people choosing to vote by mail increases this year, two provisions in particular – the 7 p.m. election night deadline and a signature-match requirement – could lead to disenfranchisements of thousands of Floridians, more specifically black and Hispanic citizens, if the state refuses to make efforts to accommodate for the current health crisis. During the primaries alone, an estimated 18,000 mail in ballots were rejected in Florida for missing the deadlines or for errors including a mismatch with the signature on file. Despite the pandemic, which left many people scared to go out to public gatherings, polling places without poll workers and several other difficulties, the state still refused to relax these requirements. In a battleground state like Florida, where outcomes could be determined by only a few votes, consequences like this could make a huge difference in determining who emerges as the victor. In the primaries, experts also found that minority voters were more likely to vote by mail for the first time this year and they were twice as likely to have their votes rejected in comparison to white voters. The same outcome is also expected for the general election.  

In an effort to ensure that the pandemic does not disenfranchise minority citizens, civil rights organizations in Florida filed a suit against Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, demanding accommodations to the state’s election procedure in response to the pandemic. Some of the proposed remedies in the updated complaint include extending the deadline to return a vote-by-mail ballot, expanding the use of drop boxes for vote-by-mail ballots, extending the time period to cure issues with vote-by-mail ballots, and expanding the days, hours, and locations for early voting in each county. The settlement reached in that case will ultimately “increase access to voter registration, require the state to inform citizens of their options in casting a vote-by-mail ballot, encourage Supervisors of Elections (SOEs) to use funding options to provide prepaid postage for mail-in ballots, and require the Secretary of State to develop and execute a public relations campaign to inform voters of their options in casting a ballot, especially among communities of color, college-aged voters and seniors.”

Although some progress was made with this settlement, Florida still has a long way to go in protecting the votes of thousands of Floridians for this upcoming general election. A further suggestion to protect this franchise for Floridian voters is to expand the window of receipt for mail in ballots by enacting a grace period to receive and count mail in votes, as this would go a long way in protecting tens of thousands of votes. 

To reduce the number of mail-in ballots that could potentially be rejected, everyone has to play their part. Although some Florida voters may be lax about their responsibility to sign their ballots and mail in out in time, the government is ultimately responsible for protecting the integrity of the election, and they possess the power to make accommodations and create reasonable flexibility to promote a free and fair election.

Supreme Court Overturns Lower Courts’ Rulings on South Carolina’s Absentee Ballot Witness Requirement

On October 5, 2020, the Supreme Court stayed the South Carolina Federal District Court’s September 18, 2020 order enjoining the South Carolina State Election Commission (“SCEC”) from enforcing the state’s witness requirement for absentee ballots. The witness requirement refers to South Carolina law that requires another person to witness an absentee voter’s signature on the absentee ballot envelope for the November 2020 general election. The law requires the witness to sign the absentee ballot envelop and provides that noncompliant absentee ballots “may not be counted.” However, the Supreme Court’s order granted a narrow exception for ballots if they were cast before the Court issued this stay and were “received within two days” of the order.

It would have been helpful if the Court’s majority had explained the rationale behind its order, given that it overturned both the district court and the Fourth Circuit, which had refused to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction when it considered the matter en banc. The only rationale in the Court’s opinion was provided by Justice Kavanaugh, who concurred with the majority based on “two alternative and independent reasons.” However, as shown below, Kavanaugh’s reasons alone do not seem to provide adequate justification for issuing the stay.

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