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3 critical ways state lawmakers changed voting access this year that will affect the 2022 midterms

Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Arlington during the Virginia governor election on November 2, 2021 in Virginia, United States

Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

  • State legislatures have passed hundreds of laws affecting voting and elections in 2021. 
  • Many new laws restrict voting access in key swing states and inject more partisanship in elections.
  • Here are three key ways states changed the voting landscape in 2021 and what to watch for in 2022. 

State legislatures around the country have been hard at work reshaping voting rules and the structure of American elections since the unprecedented efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, culminating in the January 6 insurrection nearly a year ago. 

The unsuccessful challenges to President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory have given way to many Republican-controlled states prioritizing changing the rules of the game for the upcoming elections in 2022.

Meanwhile, many Democratic-controlled states have passed dozens of bills bolstering voting access, including fully codifying temporary expansions of mail voting from the 2020 election. 

This legislative activity has significantly widened the gulf of voting access between Republican and Democratic-controlled states, turning the national election landscape into what one voting rights group calls “a tale of two democracies” heading into the 2022 midterms.

Here’s how state legislatures reshaped voting rules and political power in 2021 — and what’s on the horizon in 2022.  

Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Orange, presided as they House prepared to debate voting bill SB1, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas.Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Orange, presided as they House prepared to debate omnibus voting bill SB1, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Austin, Texas. The final version of the bill passed both chambers on Tuesday.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Three big ways lawmakers changed voting and elections in 2021

Expanding and curtailing voting access:

In all, 44 states have enacted at least 285 bills affecting voting and elections in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, changes that will impact hundreds of millions of voters. 

One group, The Voting Rights Lab, tracked 275 bills enacted in 2021 and categorized 109 as having a “pro-voter” impact affecting 96 million voters, 47 as “anti-voter,” affecting 55 million voters, 27 laws as “neutral,” and 92 laws as having a mixed or unclear impact. 

The bills expanding voting access, mainly in Democratic-controlled states, have increased early voting and voter registration opportunities, expanded access to mail voting, improved the administration of mail voting by allowing voters to fix problems with their mail ballots and enabling election officials to pre-process mail ballots, and restored voting rights to those with felony convictions. 

Bills limiting voting, overwhelmingly passed in Republican-controlled states, restrict access to voting by mail and ballot drop boxes, make it harder for election officials to facilitate mail voting, impose stricter voter identification requirements, cut early voting dates or hours, and restrict voter registration opportunities, among other changes. 

New voting restrictions in battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, and Texas, in particular, are set to play a significant role in the 2022 midterms. 

Republicans behind such measures say the new laws are necessary to bolster the integrity of elections. And while not all provisions passed in those states are restrictive for voters or burdensome for election officials, the new restrictions are unlikely to substantially curb voter fraud — which is already incredibly rare — while risking imposing additional barriers on voters.  

Election judges process early ballots in the Jefferson County elections division, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Golden, Colo.Election judges process early ballots in the Jefferson County elections division, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Golden, Colo.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File

Politicizing how votes are counted:

In addition to new state laws changing how voters can cast a ballot, Republican state legislators in over a dozen states have passed laws that restrict the autonomy of local election officials and inject more partisanship into the election administration process.

The politicization of election administration, shifting of election authority to partisan officials, and states pursuing partisan ballot reviews is an emerging trend that has already contributed to the strain election officials face in 2021, with significant consequences for 2022. 

A December report from three democracy think tanks identified 32 laws enacted in 17 laws that make it easier to fire or remove local election officials, give state legislatures more authority over election administration, impose new potential criminal penalties and fines on election officials, and greenlight partisan reviews of past election results.

For example, Texas’ new omnibus elections bill, Senate Bill 1, levies the threat of prosecution and fines on election officials for everything from not granting sufficient access to poll watchers to proactively sending voters absentee ballot applications. 

Drawing new boundaries:

Following the 2020 Census, states are reshaping the balance of power in the United States for the decade to come in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

State legislatures and redistricting commissions are redrawing new political maps for House of Representatives and state legislative districts, while officials at the local level are redrawing lines for county-level and municipal districts. 

After pandemic-induced delays, 24 states have completed their congressional redistricting in 2021, with 20 states still to determine their citizens’ representation in Congress for the next decade. But not all the lines are fully settled: many of the states that have completed their congressional redistricting are facing federal and state lawsuits from plaintiffs arguing their lines are racially or politically gerrymandered. 

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre holds up maps during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre holds up maps during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021

Matt Rourke/AP

Three trends to watch in 2022:

In addition to the ongoing redistricting process (and the ensuing litigation that could shake up the 2022 primary calendar), here’s what else to look out for at the state level in 2022.

More voting bills teed up for 2022 legislative sessions:

With Congress still unlikely to pass any major election reform, especially in an election year, the vast majority of legislative action on voting and election rules will continue to take place in statehouses around the country. 

In addition to the hundreds of bills automatically carrying over from 2021 into 2022 legislative sessions, lawmakers have pre-filed 74 bills in 11 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Some bills introduced by Republicans would further restrict mail voting, impose stricter voter ID requirements, and conduct more partisan reviews of the 2020 election and future elections. 

State judiciaries becoming another battleground in the voting wars:

The US Supreme Court ruling that partisan gerrymandering is off-limits in federal court and becoming far less friendly turf for voting rights advocates has placed state courts in a powerful position to rule on challenges to new redistricting maps and election laws. 

State supreme courts will determine the legality of new congressional maps in key states like North Carolina and Ohio. And in some states like Virginia and Washington, state courts drew the lines themselves when commissions couldn’t agree. 

Not only are nearly 400 state-level state supreme court and appellate court positions up for election in 2022, but Republican-controlled state legislatures are also aiming at the power of state courts, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center. 

In 2021, 14 states enacted 19 bills that further politicize state judiciaries or curtail judicial independence. A dozen laws in nine states, including Kansas, Kentucky, and Texas, directly restrict state courts’ ability to rule on election matters.

Voting rights advocate and Georgia's 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, left, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, rightVoting rights advocate and Georgia’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, left, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File

2022 elections determining who counts the votes in 2024:

The outcome of the 2020 presidential election will loom large in 2022 races up and down the ballot — starting with the governors responsible for signing election bills into law and certifying election results in 2024. 

In all, 36 governorships are up for reelection in 2022 — including in all six states where former President Donald Trump falsely claimed massive voter fraud stole the 2020 election from him. 

Trump has endorsed former Sen. David Perdue to challenge GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, where Kemp and other officials earned Trump’s ire for certifying and defending the 2020 election and backed another purveyor of 2020 election conspiracy theories, former TV anchor Kari Lake, to replace outgoing GOP Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs are seeking the Democratic nominations for governor in Georgia and Arizona, respectively. Governorships in the three critical Midwestern swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, currently held by Democrats, are also up for election in 2022. 

Thousands of state and local election offices directly responsible for administering elections are on the ballot next year, too.

In 2022, 24 secretaries of state (who serve as the chief election official in most states) are up for election. And in the key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan, three Republican candidates who believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump have his backing to serve as their state’s chief election official for 2024. 

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