Cover: The Impact of State Voting Processes in the 2020 Election

The Impact of State Voting Processes in the 2020 Election

Estimating the Effects on Voter Turnout, Voting Method, and the Spread of COVID-19

Published Jul 31, 2023

by Samuel Absher, Jennifer Kavanagh


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Research Questions

  1. What were the effects of state election processes on voter turnout and choice of voting method in 2020?
  2. Did in-person voting exacerbate the spread of COVID-19?

Leading up to the 2020 general election, state election boards grew concerned that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic might drive voters away from the polls or that crowded polling stations would spread the virus and lead to a wave of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

In an effort to safely conduct the 2020 general election, many states changed their voting laws by implementing automatic voter registration, removing excuse requirements for absentee ballots, and expanding early voting windows. These changes, meant to encourage turnout and protect public health, were expensive to implement, politically contentious, or both. But did the changes have the desired effects?

This report examines the impact of voting laws on voter turnout and choice of voting method in the 2020 election and the effects of in-person voting on the spread of COVID-19.

Key Findings

  • States relaxed their voting laws leading up to the 2020 general election.
  • The flexibility of states' election processes on Election Day increased voter turnout.
  • The responsiveness to the changes in voting laws varied by demographic.
  • States with less flexible election processes had a larger share of their voters cast ballots in person on Election Day.
  • Voting laws can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and increase voter turnout by making remote voting more accessible.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

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