Pandemic Puts A Crimp On Voter Registration, Potentially Altering Electorate

May 26, 2020
Originally published on May 29, 2020 5:03 pm

No door-to-door canvassing. Public gatherings are canceled. Motor vehicle offices are closed. Naturalization ceremonies are on hiatus.

Almost every place where Americans usually register to vote has been out of reach since March and it's led to a big drop in new registrations right before a presidential election that was expected to see record turnout.

The consequences of that decline could reshape the electorate ahead of the November election, although it's not yet clear how.

Four years ago, organizers for the progressive group New Virginia Majority were able to register 120,000 new voters, who contributed to Hillary Clinton's victory in the state and Democrats' subsequent takeover of the state legislature.

But this year, in the middle of a pandemic?

"The rules of engagement have been completely upended," said Tram Nguyen, New Virginia Majority's co-executive director.

"We're not able to walk the neighborhood streets. We're not able to set up tables at community centers and places where it's easy to reach people in [the] community. So organizers have still continued to do the work around engaging folks. It looks a lot different," she said.

The group is now reaching people online, mostly over social media and video chats, but Nguyen doubts that they'll be able to register as many new voters this year as they did in 2016.

Across the country, other interest groups, political parties and election officials are running into similar hurdles.

Until the pandemic struck, the 2020 presidential election had been on track to see a huge surge in new voters. According to data from the Democratic voter targeting firm TargetSmart, voter registrations in January and February of this year far outpaced those in 2016.

But since the virus hit, new registrations are falling around the country. After a record increase in January, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams was disappointed that registrations in his state almost flatlined.

"February we had a net 7,000 new registrations. And in March we had a net 500 new registrations," said Adams, a Republican. In April, the state's voter rolls shrank by more than 1,000.

Like voters in many states, Kentuckians can register online. But Adams said it's not the same as, say, going to a booth at the state fair.

"People can still register, the government's not closed, but without that personal contact, with people encouraging their friends to register, that's why we've seen such a big drop-off," he said.

Kentucky is hardly alone. Virginia saw 73% fewer registrations last month than it did four years ago. Officials said one reason is the shutdown of Department of Motor Vehicle offices, where voters routinely register. North Carolina had a similar decline and has expanded online registration to pick up some of the slack.

Political parties, which often take an outsize role in registering new voters, have also adjusted.

In Texas, where online registration is not allowed, the state's Democrats launched a website last month that provides a registration form with a postage-paid envelope to send it in as part of their goal of registering a million new voters.

Texas Republicans are doing the same, although party chair James Dickey says they started before the pandemic.

"In fact, we have seen our voter registration counts continue to increase and our volunteer count continue to increase," said Dickey, who added that the Texas GOP is well on its way to reaching its goal of registering at least 100,000 new voters.

Dickey thinks the pandemic has probably had more impact on some of the party's other activities. "It was our plan to be doing all of our voter persuasion and voter turnout efforts in person," he said. They're now doing it over the phone.

Organizers of both parties say they always try to meet voters where they are, but now that means reaching them at home and online.

One group that's benefiting is the nonprofit Vote.org, which uses technology to register and mobilize voters.

"We're having an avalanche of people come to us" as a result of groups ditching their in-person campaigns, said Vote.org CEO Andrea Hailey.

The group has helped register more than a half million people so far this year, with a focus on young voters and people of color.

One hurdle, Hailey says, are requirements in some states that voters register by mail and provide photocopies of their ID.

"We used to point people to a library if you didn't have a printer, and say go to your nearest library, get them to print it out, but you know libraries are closed right now," she said.

The big question is how all this will affect the November election. Most people can still register until shortly before Election Day and it's unclear whether the losses so far this year can be made up in the fall.

The general belief is that Democrats benefit the most by signing up new voters, but that's not necessarily true. What matters most is who ends up casting ballots.

Nguyen of New Virginia Majority says one thing that's been lost in the pandemic is the bond her organizers have with the people they register in person, a relationship that helps them make sure these new voters actually show up and vote.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus is complicating the 2020 election - literally how we vote. Mail-in ballots can keep voters safe by keeping them away from crowded polls. It is a long-existing practice used in many elections. But it's become a huge political flashpoint for President Trump. This week, the president claimed that voting by mail would cause, quote, "the greatest rigged election in history." There is no evidence of that but President Trump's rhetoric raises suspicions about voter fraud and breeds distrust of mail-in ballots. NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting issues. And she's been digging into this. Hi, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What does the evidence show, Pam? Should people worry about voter fraud when casting their ballot by mail?

FESSLER: Well, voter fraud in the U.S. of any kind, as you mentioned, is extremely rare. And there's a slight increase in the chance for fraud when it comes to mail-in voting because it's hard to always know if the voter is getting pressure to vote one way or the other or if someone's filling out the ballot for them. But, you know, the evidence that this occurs more than an isolated case is just - isn't there - certainly, nothing like what President Trump alleged this past weekend - that people are printing out thousands of forged ballots and then forcing people to sign them.

The reason is that there are a lot of protections in place. Election offices match voter signatures up with the ones that are on record that they have in the office. And there are also bar codes on the mail-in ballots that election officers and even voters can use to track where their ballot is, just like a package they might have ordered online.

MARTIN: So we're seeing legal fights around the country over mail-in ballots right now. Having said that, what's the likelihood that this will actually be an option for voters in November?

FESSLER: Well, I think there's no question that many more voters are going to have this option to vote by mail in November. Almost every state's expanding mail-in voting because of the pandemic, you know, not just for the primaries, but some already have decided to do that for the general election. And this is in states that are run by both Democrats and Republicans.

Still, as you mentioned, there are all these lawsuits that have been filed in recent weeks over just how much it's going to be expanded and what the rules are going to be. Democrats want to get rid of many of the things that they see as barriers to using absentee ballots, such as having witness or notary signatures that are required in some states. And Republicans want to keep those rules in place, arguing that they're safeguards needed to protect against the possibility of fraud.

MARTIN: Before we even get to the mailbox though, you have found that just getting people registered this election season has been an uphill battle. Explain why.

FESSLER: Yeah. You know, all the places that people usually register to vote - you know, places like community events, naturalization ceremonies, motor vehicle offices - they've been closed. I mean, usually, presidential elections see a huge surge in the voter registrations. But, you know, this year, we're seeing a huge impact. And I've been looking into what that impact is this year.

Four years ago, organizers for the progressive group New Virginia Majority walked the streets of northern Virginia, randomly asking people...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sir, are you registered to vote at your current address?

FESSLER: If not, the organizer would have them fill out a form right then and there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When I turn this in, you'll be getting your voter registration card within 30 days.

FESSLER: But this year, in the middle of a pandemic...

TRAM NGUYEN: The rules of engagement have been completely upended.

FESSLER: Tram Nguyen, New Virginia Majority's co-executive director, says her group can no longer rely on the usual techniques.

NGUYEN: We're not able to set up tables at community centers and places where it's easy to reach people in community. So our organizers have still continued to do the work around engaging folks. It looks a lot different.

FESSLER: Now they're reaching people mostly over social media and online, with things like video chats. Nguyen doubts that they'll be able to register 120,000 new voters this year, as they did in 2016. Across the country, other interest groups, political parties and election officials are running into similar hurdles. The 2020 presidential election had been on track to see a huge surge in new voters. But Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams was disappointed. The registrations in his state have basically flatlined after a record increase in January.

MICHAEL ADAMS: February, we had a net 7,000 new registrations. And in March, we had a net 500 new registrations.

FESSLER: Then in April, registrations actually declined by more than a thousand. Adams says in Kentucky, as in many states, voters can always register online. But it's not the same as, say, going to a booth at the state fair.

ADAMS: People can still register. The government's not closed. But without that personal contact, with people encouraging their friends to register, that's why we've seen such a big drop-off.

FESSLER: And Kentucky is hardly alone. Virginia saw 73% fewer registrations last month than it did four years ago. One reason is the shutdown of Department of Motor Vehicle offices, where voters routinely register. North Carolina had a similar decline and has expanded online registration to pick up some of the slack. Political parties have also adjusted. Texas Democrats, who hoped to register a million new voters, launched a website last month that provides a registration form with a postage-paid envelope to send it in. Texas Republicans are doing the same, although party Chairman James Dickey says they started before the pandemic.

JAMES DICKEY: In fact, we have seen our voter registration counts continue to increase and our volunteer count continue to increase.

FESSLER: He says the party is well on its way to reaching its goal of registering at least 100000 new voters. Dickey thinks the pandemic has probably had more impact on some of the Texas GOP's other activities.

DICKEY: It was our plan to be doing all of our voter persuasion and voter turnout efforts in person.

FESSLER: They're now doing it over the phone. Organizers of both parties say they always try to meet voters where they are. Now that just means reaching them at home and online. One group that's benefiting is the nonprofit vote.org, which uses technology to register and mobilize voters. CEO Andrea Hailey says they're working now with other groups that had to ditch their in-person campaigns.

ANDREA HAILEY: We're having an avalanche of people come to us.

FESSLER: And they've helped register more than a half million people so far, with a focus on young voters and people of color. Hailey says one hurdle is a requirement in some states that voters register by mail and provide photocopies of their ID.

HAILEY: We used to point people to a library if you didn't have a printer and say, go to your nearest library. Get them to print it out. But, you know, libraries are closed right now.

MARTIN: So, Pam, there is this dropoff in voter registrations because of the pandemic. Voter registration organizations are having to readjust. What are the consequences of that? I mean, how could it affect the election in November?

FESSLER: Well, we really don't know yet. I mean, people can register until very close to Election Day. So some of these losses could be made up. Overall, the general belief is that Democrats would benefit the most by signing up a lot of new voters. But, you know, that's not - we don't - necessarily the case. What really matters is who votes. And Tram Nguyen of New Virginia Majority told me that, you know, one thing that's been lost in the pandemic is this personal connection her organizers had with the people they register, so they can follow up and make sure that they actually turn out on Election Day and cast their ballots.

MARTIN: NPR's Pam Fessler. Pam, thank you so much for sharing your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

FESSLER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.