WASHINGTON — In a normal election year, volunteers from the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the League of Women Voters would have spent last weekend at the Columbus Arts Fair, pens and clipboards in hand, looking to sign up new voters among the festival’s 400,000 or so attendees.
This is not a normal election year. “There are absolutely no festivals this summer,” said Jen Miller, the executive director of the league’s state chapter. “We don’t have volunteers at tables. We don’t have volunteers roving with clipboards. Obviously, we’re just not doing that.”
Neither is pretty much anyone else. First the Covid-19 pandemic upended how people vote, forcing a huge shift to mailed-in ballots in primary elections nationwide. Now it is taking aim at who can vote — the millions of people who would ordinarily register or update their registrations in a presidential election year.
New voter registrations in 12 states and the District of Columbia plummeted 70 percent in April compared to January, before the coronavirus became a major public issue, according to a study released Friday by the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
By comparison, the center reported, new registrations in the 13 surveyed jurisdictions rose by 43 percent during the same period in 2016.
In Florida, one likely battleground state in November, there were 77,000 new registrations in January; that number fell to 21,000 in April. Another battleground state, North Carolina, plunged from 112,000 new voters in January to just 35,000 in April. Monthly registrations fell by two-thirds in Arizona and by three-quarters in California.
The drop has the potential to depress participation in a November presidential election that has been widely expected to break all records for turnout, the center’s director, David J. Becker, said on Friday.
“There’s no simple answer to this,” he said. While registrations could rebound as pandemic-induced limits on social interaction ease, he said, “we have to go into this with open eyes. This is going to be a big challenge.”
In fact, some signs of a possible rebound have already surfaced at another big source of new registrations: Online services like Vote.org and Rock the Vote have recently seen a surge in visits to their websites, perhaps reflecting renewed civic activism in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
About 200,000 people began online registrations at the Vote.org website in the first week of June, and 107,000 more began sign-ups at Rock the Vote, whose platform is used by a range of civic groups, the heads of those organizations said in interviews last week. Both numbers are unusually high given that there were few or no deadlines for voter registration during the week, the factor that usually causes online sign-ups to increase.
The reasons for the spring declines in new-voter registrations are obvious. Driver licensing bureaus and some other state offices, which double as voter-registration offices under federal law, were shuttered or only intermittently open as the pandemic worsened.
Those offices account for a huge share of new registrations. In Florida, for example, new registrations at state motor vehicle offices dropped from more than 42,000 in February to fewer than 4,900 in April, Mr. Becker said.
Voter registration drives, which sign up droves of voters in election years, have also slowed to a crawl as the pandemic has made contact with crowds like those at art festivals a health hazard.
In the last major election year, 2018, League of Women Voters chapters registered 225,000 new voters nationwide, a number that would almost certainly rise sharply this year under ordinary conditions. But this month, registration efforts by the league’s 750 affiliates are “probably 95 percent closed compared to what we’ve done in the past,” the group’s director of mission impact, Jeanette Senecal, said on Friday.
Among the missed registrants, she said, are graduating high school students and newly naturalized citizens, groups that the organization’s local chapters routinely sign up in normal years. This year, Ms. Senecal said, “They’re reporting that voter registration is mostly at a standstill in most communities.”
The implications for November’s elections are muddled by uncertainty over the course of both the pandemic and the economy.
The rolls of registered voters swell by millions in each presidential election year — by about 4.5 million between 2012 and 2016, for example — but the actual number of new voters is even larger than that number suggests. That is because culling dead and inactive registrants from the rolls reduces the number of listed voters, even as new registrants add to the total.
Many new voters sign up in the final summer months before a major election. If restrictions imposed by the pandemic continue, that final surge of new voters could be blunted.
Some of that loss may be offset by a consortium of state election offices, the Electronic Registration Information Center. The center’s primary job is to help states keep their voter rolls up to date by exchanging information from motor vehicle offices and voter registration lists. But new members also agree to contact all eligible residents who have not registered to vote and invite them to sign up.
This year, six states — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Texas and Vermont — are new members and, along with the other members, will extend invitations to more than 20 million potential voters. If 15 percent of them take up the offer, as happened in 2016, the invitations alone would add three million new voters to the rolls. But given the intense interest in the presidential election, “I expect to see much higher rates,” Mr. Becker said.
There are, of course, many ways to register that are not affected by the pandemic. Beyond civic groups that offer online sign-ups, all but a handful of states offer online registrations via their own websites — if citizens are motivated to find the websites and navigate the sign-up process, and assuming they are neither too forgetful nor too busy to try at all.
Motor vehicle offices and registration drives remove those roadblocks, which is why they are crucial to increasing the voter rolls. “We’ve been of the belief that if you ask someone to register and vote, that they will,” said Alexandria Harris, the executive director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which works to increase voting among young people. “But typically, that’s been in person, at a registration drive, setting up a table.”
Even if the pandemic had not ruled that out, the economic and social upheavals it triggered have relegated voting to a secondary concern for many. “Eligible voters’ minds have not been on the election — that’s just a reality,” said Carolyn DeWitt, executive director of Rock the Vote. “They’ve been focusing on the loss of jobs, their health, child care at home and so on.”
Unable to meet new voters face to face, many groups are turning to online organizing as a fallback.
The Goodman Foundation is staging a videoconference training program for its college campus representatives, followed by an August online summit that will be open to all students. “We’ll be talking about how people can specifically get involved, get people registered and get them to vote,” Ms. Harris said.
The League of Women Voters has begun “a very large pivot” from personal to online meetings to promote voter registration and civic involvement, and its own one-stop website for voter registration and election information, Vote411.org, has already seen a 40 percent jump in visits compared to 2016, Ms. Senecal said. The group is exploring ways to use its half-million members to recruit new voters among their friends, neighbors and work colleagues.
And slowly, the clipboards and sign-up tables are cautiously returning to the public square. During protests over police brutality this month in Houston, volunteers from the local League of Women Voters were in the crowds, recruiting new registrants.
“I’m looking forward to the day when we can do this in person again,” Ms. Senecal said.
Jake Frankenfield contributed reporting.