When it comes to voter access and ease of casting ballots, Southern states have long ranked near the bottom.
It’s a reputation that extends back to long gone literacy tests of the Jim Crow era. And it’s one that continued into the modern era with states such as Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina not offering early voting and requiring excuses, witness signatures and photo IDs to vote absentee.
Since the Supreme Court struck down federal oversight of local voting law changes in 2013, 1,200 polling places have closed across the South, according to a study by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. In a review of election laws and poll access published in October by Northern Illinois University, all Southern states but Louisiana and North Carolina ranked among the 12 worst states for “cost of voting.”
“It’s generally fair to say that voting in the South is harder than the rest of the country,” said Ryan Williamson, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University who specializes in how political rules influence outcomes. “The South’s history of actively disenfranchising not just Black citizens but poor whites and members of the minority party, we’re not as far removed from that as maybe it would seem sometimes.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced states across the nation — including those below the Mason-Dixon line — to adjust voting rules, and the result was record-breaking turnout and an unprecedented number of absentee ballots cast.
Now, Southern voting rights advocates such as JaTaune Bosby, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, are hoping they can leverage this year’s results into permanent reforms that expand voter access ahead of future elections.
“We want to use this election as a turning point — and a charge, if you will — to ensure our lawmakers, the secretary of state and the governor understand the necessity of expanding voting for all Alabamians, particularly those on the margin and in the most vulnerable communities,” Bosby said.
What Southern states changed for the pandemic (and what they didn't)
Early voting options and no-excuse absentee ballots are considered the first steps to expanding voting options. Currently, 43 states offer in-person early voting and 34 states don't require excuses to vote absentee.
But fears of spreading COVID-19 at the polls forced states such as South Carolina and Alabama to make their usually strict absentee rules more flexible.
Both states allowed voters to mark COVID-19 as a universal "excuse" to request absentee ballots.
As a result, Alabama saw 318,000 absentee ballots cast, more than three times as many as the previous state record (89,000) set in 2012. The 2.3 million votes cast was also the highest in state history, according to data from the Alabama Secretary of State Office.
South Carolina also shattered previous highs for absentee voting, with absentee ballots comprising 52% of the total votes cast, compared to 23% in 2016. The states also allowed no-excuse, in-person absentee voting prior to Election Day, a rare early voting opportunity for many. And despite the increase, the number of absentee ballots rejected in South Carolina decreased compared to four years ago, according to a report by The State.
Alison Parker, managing director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, spent time in South Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania ahead of the primaries to interview local experts and voters about ease of access to the ballots. Parker said they chose those states for regional diversity and because they were "particularly concerned about" voter access.
After November's general election, she said the results show there is a desire for expanded voting options in the state.
"I think we’ve learned that absentee voting by mail is a perfectly safe and actually very efficient way to run an election in this country," Parker said. "Frankly, South Carolina just needs to get rid of the need for an excuse. Election officials have the duty to make voting easy for every eligible voter and one way to make it easy is to ensure that people can vote absentee by mail."
Parker called the pandemic-fueled expansion of voting opportunities one "silver lining" of an otherwise difficult and deadly battle with the novel coronavirus.
But the responses by some states to the pandemic showed there's still a reticence to change firmly entrenched voting practices.
Alabama and South Carolina implemented the no-excuse absentee voting rule while battling federal lawsuits by organizers calling for a loosening of notary and photo ID laws. Both states refused to implement ballot drop boxes or eliminate other absentee voting hurdles.
"We don’t make it as easy as we should," said Gibbs Knotts, political science professor at the College of Charleston. "Clearly you have to make sure your elections have integrity, but I feel like we’ve gone a little on the side of putting up barriers."
Louisiana allows early voting but did not allow COVID-19 to be used as an absentee excuse. Mississippi only allowed COVID-19 as an excuse for those who had tested positive for the virus or were quarantined. While North Carolina and South Carolina allowed curbside voting, Alabama denied it. A federal judge ruled that Mississippi had to provide curbside voting, but it was only offered to those who showed symptoms or believed they had been exposed to COVID-19.
Mississippi still saw a record number of absentee ballots cast, but Mississippi League of Women Voters co-president Christy Wheeler said improvements have to be made ahead of the 2021 municipal elections as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
"Mississippi is one of those states it is the hardest one to vote in. It is disappointing and disenfranchising," Wheeler said. "We are looking at trying to get online voter registration approved. Working with legislatures to expand COVID allowances so if you are afraid of going to the polls you can vote absentee.”
Evidence of success and signs of opposition
Outside of early and no-excuse absentee voting, Southern states remain behind on several voting reform laws that have had success in other states, including same-day registration.
Nationwide, the six states with the highest turnout in 2016 all allowed voters to register on Election Day.
North Carolina is the only Southern state to offer same-day registration and was the Southern state ranked highest (No. 23) by the Northern Illinois University review.
The state had 75% turnout for this election and averaged 69% turnout in the three previous presidential elections. Christopher Cooper, head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, said that allowed the state to be ahead of pandemic preparations.
“I don't think we're nearly where we could be, but compared to most states we do a pretty good job,” Cooper said. “Our no-excuse absentee is an important feature of our system that we've had for a while. The fact that people took advantage of it five times as many as they did in 2016, I think is a good sign. It's exactly why we have no-excuse absentee, for occasions like this.”
Any changes to election laws in the South will have to come from the states' legislatures. And advocates such as Bosby are already preparing to lobby for expanding voter access.
"I hope Alabama lawmakers will really learn from this historic turnout and accept providing, not only in-person but online voting options for Alabama so they can choose the best method of voting for themselves," Bosby said.
But lawmakers in these states have already begun digging in their heels to oppose such changes, citing fears of election fraud.
“Every legal ballot must be counted, but ONLY legal ballots,” tweeted Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who presides over the state’s Senate. “To avoid this kind of chaos from happening in Alabama, I’ll fight universal mail-in voting and no-excuse early voting. It’s an invitation for disaster, fraud, ballot-harvesting, confusion, and mayhem.”
Immediately after the election, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves shared a similar message.
“...Based on what I see in other states today, I will also do everything in my power to make sure universal mail-in voting and no-excuse early voting are not allowed in MS—not while I’m governor! Too much chaos. Only way it’d happen is if many GOP legislators override a veto!” Reeves tweeted.
Does increased access increase turnout?
Organizers and advocacy groups have already begun preparing for the uphill battle to expand access.
But it's unclear if expanding access in the South will yield higher turnout or a changing of the political guard.
In a region where fights for voting access are predominantly taking place in red states, Cooper said more paths to the ballot box is unlikely to swing states to the other side of the political spectrum.
“Voting reforms do a pretty good job increasing turnout,” Cooper said. “We know how to increase turnout. We don't really know how to change the types of people who turn out.”
And while some see this year as a bellwether for how more voting options can increase turnout, Williamson said it’s possible the record-setting totals were merely a product of a highly divisive election.
“Convenience voting was expanded and turnout increased, but we don’t have a counterfactual to say what turnout would look like if convenience voting hadn’t been increased,” Williamson said. “On the ballot you still had a very polarizing candidate who really mobilized his base and counter-mobilized the opposition’s base.”
There are other factors that keep turnout low in these states. In Mississippi and Alabama, Congressional districts are gerrymandered in a way that lumps all Democratic voters into one district while the rest remain consistently Republican.
Williamson said that lack of competition breeds voter apathy on both sides of the aisle with voters accepting what seems to be a preordained loss or victory.
It remains to be seen if voters' response to increased options will effect permanent reform. Even more uncertain is the impact any changes will have on future races. But Williamson said, it's each state's duty to ensure each citizen has a chance to exercise their right to vote.
"Fundamentally there should not be additional obstacles to someone’s ability to participate in an election," Williamson said. "That being said, eliminating all of the institutional barriers may be insufficient to drastically and permanently increase turnout.
"It’ll be interesting to see if this increase in turnout can continue beyond this election."