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Introduction & Methodology
At the Institute for Responsive Government, we’re on a mission to make government more efficient, accessible, and responsive to the needs of people. To do that, we believe in crafting practical state-level policy solutions tailored to the needs of each state’s communities that are built upon their existing systems. That requires taking into consideration each state’s distinctive landscape, both its existing laws, as well as its political makeup, to come up with state-specific solutions.
One of our key focus areas is state election laws — and for good reason. State election laws impact the everyday lives of eligible voters across the nation, and it’s imperative for all states to prioritize legislation that will promote accessibility and security for our elections in order to create a more responsive government. Based on this priority and our philosophy on how to achieve and measure progress, we’re releasing our Election Policy Progress Reports, a 50-state review of how each state has fared at making their election laws more responsive and user-friendly for voters and election administrators over the past two years.
This is not a total state-to-state comparison of election laws. There are other organizations out there that already do those kinds of ranking scorecards, and do it very well:
- Movement Advancement Project: Democracy Maps
- The Democracy Maps is produced by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), an independent, nonprofit think tank. The Democracy Maps “track state election laws and policies and create a detailed roadmap of how states can optimize civic engagement and protect the security, integrity and independence of our elections. A state’s “Democracy Tally” counts the number of laws and policies within the state that help create a healthy election system.”
- MIT Election Data & Science Lab: Elections Performance Index
- The Elections Performance Index (EPI) is produced by “the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, which is dedicated to the nonpartisan application of scientific principles to election research and administration.” The EPI “compares election administration policy and performance across the states and from one election cycle to the next.”
- Cost of Voting in the American States: 2022
- The Cost of Voting Index (COVI) “examines election laws and policies and calculates a single measure of the relative difficulty of voting for each state. States with smaller values make voting more accessible than states with larger values. The 2022 index “updates work that established the relative ‘cost of voting’ during presidential election cycles, in each of the 50 states, from 1996 to 2020. A 2022 iteration was undertaken due to “the spate of changes in 2021, and early 2022.”
- CLC: State Scorecards 2022 Grades for Vote-by-Mail and Early Voting Opportunities
- The State Scorecards are produced by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) which works to “advanc[e] democracy through the law at the federal, state and local levels.” These scorecards grade each of the “states on their vote by mail and early voting laws as of August 1, 2022.”
We’re taking a different approach, but we’re also including their scores in our report to help show you how our state tiering compares. Most importantly, we’ll paint a legislatively-backed picture in our analysis to explain the why behind our differences with these scores.
Here’s how we’re doing things differently: We consulted with our in-house experts, fellows, and advisory board to come up with something new in our annual Election Policy Progress Reports. These state-specific progress reports evaluate each state’s progress within its tier rather than compared against every single state. A state’s grade is based on its own unique existing election law landscape and, primarily, any legislative improvements it made or any setbacks it experienced in expanding voter access and improving election administration over the past year.
Our Grading Philosophy
Members of the Institute for Responsive Government’s advisory board, fellows, and staff reviewed state legislative actions, along with relevant executive and administrative actions, to assess the changes made to the election code by states since the beginning of 2023.
In assigning a grade to a state, our team considered a few core questions:
- How did the legislature perform in advancing election reforms and in combating anti-voter efforts?
- Were the changes to the election code consequential for impacting eligible voters’ abilities to participate in elections?
- Did the state exceed, meet, or fail to meet expectations in bettering their election practices for eligible voters by passing, altering, or implementing election laws?
- Did the state change tiers from previous scorecards?
Ultimately, this is a measure of state legislative action, or lack thereof, and their work to expand and/or protect the right to vote. The grades are not intended to reflect an overall scoring of a state’s election law landscape. Moreover, the grades are not a review of the actual administration of elections. There are many excellent election administrators out there, at both the state and local levels, doing the incredibly hard work of making sure our elections run smoothly and efficiently within the context of their state’s laws.
We graded each state based on legislative actions. However, relevant executive and administrative actions were also considered. Although the progress reports are focused around legislation, Responsive Government did not consider every single piece of election-law-related legislation that was passed by any given state. For the most part, bills that were merely “introduced” or passed through a single legislative committee, bills that made very minor changes, and bills that made technical corrections were not considered.
However, there are a few exceptions to the general rule. For example:
- If a state passed very few or no election laws in a year, we may have considered minor election law changes that state made. For example, while legislation lowering the eligibility age for poll workers from 18 to 16 is a positive change, it’s not a particularly noteworthy policy adjustment, but it’s worth considering if it was the only change a state made to its election laws that year.
- If a state passed a significant reform or omnibus pieces of legislation, we considered the legislation from start to finish. For example, if a largely anti-voter bill was slowly improved over the course of the legislative process, we factored those changes into our measurement of that state’s progress. Conversely, if what initially appeared to be a significant pro-voter piece of legislation was ultimately amended into a less substantial bill before passage, we factored that into our grading.
- If a state failed to pass a significant piece of election law legislation, we may have considered the legislation, despite the fact that it failed to move very far through the process.
- Finally, because each state is graded based on its own unique election law landscape, this means that similar legislation passed in multiple states will be evaluated differently and may be considered more positively or negatively within each of those states’ independent progress reports.
How Does This Work in Practice?
We began by reviewing each state’s existing election law landscape and placing them into one of three tiers: top, bottom, and middle states. These tiers were based on the voting landscape in 2022 and strongly based off of the Cost of Voting Index scores for that year. In some cases, states have changed tiers based on new rankings from the Cost of Voting Index. Top tier states already have a robust set of pro-voter policies. Bottom tier states have strong voting restrictions and anti-voter policies in place. Middle tier states have a mix of both. Within those tiers, each state was then evaluated individually based on legislative actions taken over the last two years. We also considered the state’s actions within the context of whether it moved up or down a tier from last year’s scorecard.
Within the top tier, when reviewing the legislation that was passed, it is considered against the backdrop of all the substantial positive laws the state has already implemented in this area. So a state like Oregon, received an “A” for continuing to innovate and pass new pro-voter policies, like extending automatic voter registration to the Oregon Health Authority. However, another top tier state with robust pro-voter policies, California, received a “C” because while it did pass pro-voter policies, it also failed to fix its flawed automatic voter registration system or join the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC).
Conversely, in a bottom tier state, legislation was considered against the backdrop of the existing host of anti-voter polices the state has already implemented. So a state like South Carolina, received a “B” for holding the line on policy changes and providing additional funding to local election offices. And a state like South Dakota, received an “F” for banning drop boxes and instituting a strict 30-day residency requirement, among other things.
With middle tier states that already had a nuanced mix of pro and anti-voter policies in place, consideration was given to whether a state moved more towards pro-voter policies or in the anti-voter direction. For example, North Carolina received an “F” because its legislature curtailed voter access and stripped the power over election boards from the governor to give it to themselves. And Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico all received an “A+” , our highest grade possible, for instituting a host of pro-voter policies, including establishing a secure automatic voter registration system.
*Within the scorecards we use the acronyms “SAVR” and “PAVR” to refer to a state’s particular type of automatic voter registration. For more explanation on those terms, see: “Why We Use Terms Like ‘Partial AVR’ (PAVR) and ‘Secure AVR’ (SAVR) When Talking About Automatic Voter Registration Systems.”
*Responsive Government does not track election law changes related to campaigns, campaign finance, or redistricting.