Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker delivers his state of the state address Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, in the House Chamber at the Statehouse, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

In 1638, the white, landowning Puritan men of the Massachusetts Bay Colony gathered on Election Day to vote for a new colonial governor. For the next 380 years, the franchise expanded, but the citizens of what became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts continued to vote in the same manner: by showing up on Election Day to cast ballots at polling places. While other states, particularly in the West, made voting convenient by mailing citizens their ballots, the Bay State stuck to its old ways. Voters needed to come to where the ballots were. If they wanted an “absentee ballot” delivered to their homes, they had to apply each year by 5 p.m. on the fifth business day before an election to prove that they could not vote in person due to their absence from the district, physical disability, or religious belief. In 2018, only 3 percent of Massachusetts voters cast absentee ballots, one of the lowest rates in the country.

All that changed in 2020, when COVID-19 led Massachusetts officials to send a mail-in ballot application to every registered voter in the state and allow no-excuse absentee voting. Despite concerns that this might depress voter participation—and fears, stoked by Republicans, of voter fraud—Massachusetts saw record-breaking turnout for its elections in 2020, with more than 40 percent of voters casting mail ballots and virtually no fraud. The new system was so popular that last month the Democratic-led state legislature passed, and Republican Governor Charlie Baker signed the VOTES Act, which makes the temporary no-excuse absentee balloting provision permanent and mandates that every eligible Massachusetts voter receive an application to vote by mail.

The media has run countless stories about states cutting back on access to voting by mail. And it is true of many GOP-controlled states, especially in the South and Midwest. Georgia, for instance, passed a bill in 2021 that limits the window in which to request an absentee ballot, mandates much stricter absentee voter ID requirements, and prevents officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters. Texas made it a felony for officials to do so and outlawed the use of drop boxes as well. 

But the story the national media has largely missed is that in the Northeast corridor, the vote-by-mail trend is moving in the opposite direction. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., have all passed reforms this spring and summer to expand voter access to mail-in ballots, as did New Jersey in 2020. This shift would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Despite the efforts by GOP officials to suppress vote by mail based on the lies propagated by former President Donald Trump, there is good reason to think that what’s taking place on the Eastern Seaboard will ultimately spread throughout the country.

Historically, western states have been the most favorable ground for expanding vote by mail. Oregon became the first all-vote-at-home state in 2000. Washington followed in 2011 and Colorado in 2013. Since then, California, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii have joined the states where every registered voter is mailed a ballot weeks before Election Day with the option to mail it back or deliver it to a voting center or secure drop box. These states even allow voters to track their ballot and “cure” any mistakes, such as if the voter failed to sign it.

Western states moved quicker and further toward all-mail balloting partly because of the region’s “pioneer mentality,” notes Lori Augino, executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute and previously the director of elections for Washington State. Of course, most elected officials are reluctant to change election laws because the existing rules are how they got elected. In the West, however, state constitutions give citizens and outside groups considerable power to propose new laws and constitutional amendments through a robust initiative and referendum process. The threat or reality of these citizen petitions helped prod western state legislators and governors into action.

East of the Mississippi, by contrast, state constitutions generally make it much harder to circumvent elected officials through petitions and ballot measures. “The states that have constitutions that are much older have this additional hurdle,” Gayle Alberda, a professor of political science at Fairfield University in Connecticut, says. It took the pandemic to convince elected officials in these states—or, at least, those with a “D” after their name—to relax vote-by-mail restrictions, mainly on an emergency basis. What’s happening now is that those temporary measures are being made permanent.

On June 8, two weeks before Massachusetts Governor Baker signed his state’s expanded vote-by-mail bill, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee, a Democrat, did the same. Rhode Island’s new law eliminates an onerous requirement that voters provide two witnesses or a notary to get an absentee ballot. It also allows voters to apply for one online and requires every municipality to provide at least one drop box where those ballots can be returned.

The same day McKee signed that bill, Vermont GOP Governor Phil Scott went even further. He signed vote-by-mail legislation passed by Vermont’s Democratic-controlled statehouse requiring that every registered voter receive not an application for an absentee ballot but an actual ballot—just as happens in states like Oregon and Washington that have had vote at home for years.

Similarly, the District of Columbia City Council is considering a bill that would make permanent its 2020 decision to mail every D.C. registered voter a ballot ahead of that year’s general election. That effort won widespread praise, even among civil rights advocates concerned that vote by mail would suppress the Black vote. (Instead, turnout in key Black wards was higher in 2020 than in 2016.) The bill is expected to pass and be signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

In May, just across the D.C. line, Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a law passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature to allow localities to “pre-process” mailed ballots (open the envelopes, check the signatures, etc.) so they can be counted quickly after the polls close. (Such pre-processing has become a bugaboo among pro-Trump Republicans.) But several other major vote-by-mail bills became law without Hogan’s signature, including ones making no-excuse mail balloting permanent and allowing those who sign up for absentee ballots not to have to keep doing so for every election.

Movement in a couple of Eastern Seaboard states was slowed by state constitutions limiting voting by mail. In Delaware, for example, efforts this spring to pass a constitutional amendment expanding vote by mail failed to win the support of two key Republican lawmakers needed for passage. That prompted Democrats in late June to pass a law that would make no-excuse absentee voting a permanent feature of Delaware elections. The measure awaits Democratic Governor John Carney’s signature. Though it is popular with voters, Republicans will almost certainly challenge the law in court.

Similarly, in Connecticut, the majority-Democratic legislature failed to win enough Republican votes for the supermajority needed to rewrite a 1932 constitutional amendment that limits absentee ballots to those who are sick or out of state on Election Day. That failure led the legislature to pass a more modest reform, which Democratic Governor Ned Lamont signed in April, broadening the definition of “sick” and “absent” to include more voters.

Republican state lawmakers who are resisting the further spread of vote by mail are reacting to conservative voters who, polls show, have bought into Donald Trump’s baseless charges that mail-based balloting leads to massive fraud. “It’s incredible to me, and disappointing and devastating, that [vote by mail] has been politicized in a way simply because one guy spoke about it from his bully pulpit at the White House,” says Amber McReynolds, a politically independent member of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors and the former director of elections for Denver.

As McReynolds and other elections experts point out, Republicans have in the past been some of vote by mail’s biggest proponents. That makes sense, considering that older voters, who lean Republican, are traditionally the most significant users of absentee ballots. Studies show that voting by mail boosts turnout as much or more among Republican voters as Democrats. Indeed, many Republican elections officials in cash-strapped rural areas strongly favor moving to all-mail voting because it saves money; running two separate systems, one with polling places and the other with absentee ballots, is expensive.

For now, the Trump-inspired conservative backlash means that vote by mail will likely continue to expand only in states controlled by Democrats. But over time, if self-interest wins out—as it usually does in politics—Republican-dominated states will probably follow suit.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Lauren Adler is an intern at the Washington Monthly.