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2020 changed how America votes. The question now is whether those changes stick

[Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR]

The story of how 2020 changed voting in America has been well told by now: Whether it was 24-hour early voting sites or ramping up mail voting options, virtually every election jurisdiction in the country did something to expand access and make voting easier and safer during the early months of the pandemic.

And voters responded. Roughly 70% of the more than 150 million votes cast in that election were cast before Election Day.

The question now is whether that was a blip in voting behavior, or whether the country will, decades from now, look back on 2020 as the election that changed voting patterns for good.

With more than 15 million early votes cast already in this year's midterms, University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald says it's looking more and more like the latter.

"We were already in that direction. [Early and mail voting] had been slowly increasing over time, but 2020 just turned everything around," said McDonald, who wrote a book that analyzed turnout trends in the 2020 election.

In the two years since, state legislators everywhere have been reckoning with whether to codify those voting expansions, or whether to rein them back. That's led to a historic amount of new election laws over the past two years.

And while much of the national news coverage has focused on states that have passed restrictive measures in that time, the broad trend nationally over the last decade has actually been toward more early voting access. McDonald says that partially explains the historic level of early voting this cycle — it's much more available than it was even four years ago.

"In some places, we're simply seeing more early voters because there wasn't really an opportunity to vote early in many places back in 2018. So that's one part of it," he said.

States like Nevada and Massachusetts, for instance, have expanded their vote-by-mail options permanently since the start of the pandemic. Even Georgia's election law, which made voting by mail more difficult, actually expanded the amount of early in-person voting available in the state.

In fact, a recent report from the Center for Election Innovation & Research found that there are now just four states — Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi and New Hampshire — that don't allow for either widely available in-person early voting or no-excuse mail voting. (Connecticut voters are weighing a ballot measure this cycle that would allow an expansion of early voting in the future.)

"Despite some unnecessary laws passed in response to lies that the 2020 election was somehow stolen, most voters in 2022 will find that the process is similar to 2020 and 2021, and relatively convenient," David Becker, CEIR's founder and executive director, said in a statement about the report's release.

Some Republicans are now using that broad trend toward access — and the record early turnout this midterms — as a cudgel against those who raised alarm at restrictive laws passed by GOP legislatures over the past two years.

"Georgians have already cast 1 million votes. Biden's home state of Delaware hasn't even opened early voting yet. But sure, keep calling us Jim Crow 2.0!" former Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler tweetedon Thursday.

But Democrats like Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams noted that calculating the people who still didn't vote in an election due to law changes is almost impossible. Even in Georgia's record turnout election in 2020, for instance, nearly a third of the voting-eligible population didn't vote.

"The vernacular way of putting it is more people in the water does not mean there are fewer sharks," Abrams said. "The barriers to access are real."

McDonald similarly said it was way too early to declare one way or another the effect of Georgia's or any other state's legislation. He'll be analyzing post-election data to see whether different demographic groups were able to vote at similar rates, for instance.

"You could see turnout go up ... but maybe there are some communities that are left behind," McDonald said. "We should have an election that's fair for everybody."

There's a partisan divide in how people vote

The most obvious takeaway from the underlying early vote data available so far is the clear partisan divide.

Influential Republicans like former President Donald Trump and election denial influencerslike Mike Lindell have spent the past few years spinning conspiracies about mail voting, and to a lesser extent early voting more broadly.

In 2020, that messaging led Joe Biden supporters to vote by mail at nearly double the rate as Trump supporters, and similar trends are bearing out in 2022 as well.

In Pennsylvania, which offersabsentee voting ahead of time but no precinct-based early voting option, votes from registered Democrats outnumbered those from registered Republicans, 531,430 to 143,334, as of Oct. 27.

Similarly, in North Carolina, registered Democrats are roughly tripling registered Republicans in returned mail ballots.

It's hard to read too much into those leads, however, as Republicans say they will turn out in droves on Election Day. A recent NBC News poll found that 60% of Republicans said they planned to vote on Nov. 8, compared to just 36% of Democrats.

Charles Stewart, an elections expert who founded MIT's Election Lab, says he thinks at some point Republican distrust of mail and early voting will fade, simply because it's an illogicalcampaign strategy.

"I think in the long run there's going to be a [partisan] convergence, but in the short run as along as the Lindell-ites are out there doing their work, there's going to be a constant buzz within Republican circles that 'we're out to constrict the use of voting by mail and we're trying to push everybody to vote on Election Day,' " Stewart said.

But, he adds, getting voters to re-embrace Election Day voting would be an uphill battle.

"The immovable force in elections over the last 20 years hasn't changed," Stewart said. "And that is voters really demanding more convenience."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.