COVID Wrecked 2020 Voter Registration Efforts But Then Came The BLM Protests

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 3: People fill out voter registration forms at a memorial site for George Floyd on June 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People have gathered at the site to leave flowers, donate food, and cr... MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 3: People fill out voter registration forms at a memorial site for George Floyd on June 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People have gathered at the site to leave flowers, donate food, and create pieces of art. Former police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and the three other officers who participated in the arrest have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Floyd's death, the most recent in a series of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, has set off protests across the country. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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June 9, 2020 3:23 p.m.

The last few months have been challenging for voter registration groups that rely on in-person operations to help people get on the rolls.

But some advocates are seeing “hopeful signs” in a surge of voters registrations that occurred last week, alongside the eruption of Black Lives Matters protests across the country.

The spike came as the traditional opportunities for registration had been severely limited by the COVID-19 outbreak. For one registration group, it was the biggest one-week increase they’ve seen all year.

As has been the case for almost every aspect of elections administration, the coronavirus pandemic has scrambled the typical voter registration operations ahead of an election year.

The limited access to driver’s licenses offices mean fewer people are seeing their registrations updated through interactions at the DMV. There’s been a steep decline in in-person naturalization ceremonies, where new citizens are usually given an opportunity to register.

For third party groups that encourage registration, a calendar of in-person events where they’d normally have a presence has emptied out. Other types of field registration work has also been made more difficult, if not impossible, due to the need to social distance.

So the recent protests and the larger movement against police brutality have presented new opportunities for voter registration groups that were already re-tooling the efforts, given the new COVID-19 realities.

Rock the Vote, which aims to increase youth participation and pioneered a virtual process for getting people on the rolls, weighed having a physical presence at the protests to try to get demonstrators to register, but ultimately decided against it, according to the group’s executive director Carolyn DeWitt.

“If I was attending a protest, and someone was asking for my personal information, especially right now there’s no way I’d give it,” she told TPM, pointing to concerns about surveillance of protestors.

Nevertheless, in the first week of June, the group processed 80,000 applications through its platforms, which are used by hundreds of different organizations and companies.

It was the largest week this year for registrations, DeWitt said. The positive trend in voter registrations was shared across the various organizations that partner with Rock the Vote, rather than just one group driving the increase.

“You have to look for hopeful signs,” she said.

Likewise, by the end of last week, Voto Latino — a group aiming to mobilize Latino voters to defeat President Trump  — had already achieved its June goal of registering 20,000 people, according to a CNBC report.

Head Count, a group that teams up with musicians to encourage registration, also saw a significant increase last week.

The group registered 7,500 people online last week. For comparison, fewer than 1,000 people registered through the group in the month of April, as the outbreak meant its plans to have tables at concerts across the country were shelved.

For the recent demonstrations, Head Count for the first time made available to anyone a QR code that could be printed out and attached to protest signs. The code led to an opportunity to register online and at least 300 people registered through it over the weekend, the group’s spokesperson Andy Bernstein told TPM.

“There’s a lot of people who are coming in and want to be the person who gets their friends or the people they meet at protests registered to vote,” Bernstein said, as opposed to the types of volunteers who go through the formal training the group normally requires for its registration events.

The increases provide a bright spot in what has been a dismal situation for groups seeking to increase civic participation.

The in-person field activities that had to be put on hold are especially useful for reaching marginalized communities who have less access to the technology that makes online registration assistance feasible.

The situation is compounded by the changes the pandemic is foisting on elections themselves. Election officials are encouraging voters to use absentee voting to keep the in-person traffic at polling places low, so to limit the spread of the virus. Doing so means that voters in same-day-registration states can’t rely on in-person voting to register.

Furthermore, for voters to receive their ballots or any other materials the state sends out to encourage absentee voting, their information will need to be up to date.

That makes the task of encouraging voter registration even more crucial for groups who pre-pandemic already had lofty registration goals.

Mi Familia Vota, for instance, had hoped to register 200,000 voters from Latino communities. It has had to rework its in-person plans for churches, union meetings and consulates, but it did see 3,000 new registrations last week in the six states it’s focusing its efforts.

“At this point it’s hard to tell where we will be,” Mi Familia Vota executive director Hector Sanchez, told TPM. “But we’re still hoping we can meet our goals.”

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