Posted on April 25, 2020

‘We Can’t Afford to Wait’: Coronavirus Could Shut Out Droves of New US Voters

Sam Levine, The Guardian, April 23, 2020

In a typical election year, canvassers across the country would be beginning to fan out on street corners, college campuses, concerts and rallies to pepper Americans with a simple question: “Are you registered to vote?”

This early work is critical to campaigns trying to build a support base for election day. But this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it nearly impossible to register new voters.

Limited voter registration is most likely to affect young people, minority groups, and naturalized immigrants, groups projected to contribute to record-high turnout in November. Freezing them out is likely to benefit Republicans, who tend to see a more diverse and younger electorate as a threat.

In Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell faces a closely-watched Senate re-election battle in November, just 504 people registered in March as Covid-19 restrictions went in to effect. By comparison, more than 7,200 voters registered the month before.

Meanwhile, more states are turning to vote-by-mail amid the pandemic, relying on voter registration rolls to send out election materials. Those unable to register might not get their applications, or ballots, in time .

“We are going to be in a position where folks who are eligible will not be brought into our electoral process unless states are proactive about this,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

That’s especially important in key swing states, where elections are won by slim margins.

It is almost impossible, for example, to register to vote in New Hampshire right now. The swing state is one of a handful that doesn’t let voters register online. The local election offices are closed. Last week, state officials said anyone fearful of the virus could register to vote by mail – but the process is complicated.

“When I called my city clerk’s office, she said, ‘Well, once Covid-19 is over, you can register to vote,’” said Olivia Zink, the executive director of Open Democracy, a civic action group. It could be several more months before offices fully reopen.

Many of the missing voters may be young people. Voters aged 18 to 23 are expected to be 10% of all eligible voters this year – a larger proportion than in 2016. But they may also be first-time voters, unfamiliar with how to register.

Activists say states like Texas, which like New Hampshire has no online registration, make it even harder for this group.

“Our state is living in an outdated political process. And that political process is strategically disenfranchising a new wave of voters,” said Antonio Arellano, the interim executive director of Jolt, a Texas advocacy group that targets young Latino voters. “Some of them may fall through the cracks.”

Texas is also projected to become majority Hispanic by 2022, and Republicans fear those changes will hurt their electoral chances, said Luke Warford, voter expansion director for the Texas Democratic party.

“Republicans feel power shifting out. The floor’s falling out from beneath them,” he said.

On Tuesday, Texas Democrats announced a new website where voters can input their voter registration and have filled-out documents sent to them with prepaid envelopes. The party is aiming to register more than 1 million new voters.

Such strategies could be essential to registering voters en masse since a many voters register at motor vehicle offices, or DMVs, which are now closed. Over 35 million people registered to vote at DMVs between 2016 and 2018 – 45% of the registrations submitted.

The closure of these offices has also made it more difficult to get the identification required in many states to vote. VoteRiders, a group that assists people in getting IDs, has been left helping people obtain the documents they need when the offices eventually open, said Laina Reynolds Levy, a spokesperson.

Newly naturalized immigrants, another important voting bloc, may also be disenfranchised this year. US Citizen and Immigration Services cancelled citizenship oath ceremonies and in-person interviews, which could leave about 441,000 nearly naturalized citizens unable to vote in November, according to NBC News.

With government offices closed, registering voters will depend even more on advocacy groups, which are now organizing online and unable to knock on doors or develop trust in person.

Those interactions are critical when reaching out to communities targeted by voter suppression that tend to be skeptical of government, said Charlane Oliver, co-founder and co-executive director of the Equity Alliance, a Tennessee group focused on black voters.

In recent years, Oliver’s group has met voters at places like laundromats and nightclubs – something they can’t do now. The group turned in 90,000 voter registration applications ahead of the 2018 midterm election.

“I’m afraid that people are getting so turned off by our government and their lack of action,” she said. “I’m afraid it’s going to have a – no pun intended – trickle-down effect on low voter turnout. That people are just not going to feel like it matters either way.”

There’s a little more than six months left before the election, but Arellano said efforts to get voters registered needed to begin now. Otherwise, it could be too late.

“We can’t afford to wait until the last leg of the general election to start registering folks, because there’s not enough man capacity, there’s not enough time or ability to really engage and register as many people as possible,” he said.