The coronavirus has already drastically compromised campaigns and voting this year. The next looming casualty looks to be registration drives.
With about 95 percent of the population under states' orders to stay at home this spring, face-to-face "Get Out the Vote!" crusades so typical in election years have ceased to exist. Civic engagement groups, now forced to operate entirely online, are expressing alarm that a significant share of people who want a say in electing the president this fall won't be able to get on the voter rolls in time.
The country's digital divide already makes accessing online registration forms and information difficult for many Americans, particularly in low-income and rural areas. And for some 28 million across nine states, it's not an option at all because they have to complete actual paperwork.
Groups focused on creating new voters, and then making them the core of efforts to boost turnout, say they're determined to rise to the challenge. The Covid-19 crisis has underscored the importance of their mission, they say, and their staff and volunteers are using the unprecedented situation to get more creative in their approaches.
"We're really advocating for things we've always advocated for, like online voter registration and early voting, but now it's more important because of the coronavirus," said Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org, a nonpartisan group launched in 2016 as an online resource for voters.
Her organization's website is seeing a flood of activity in the weeks since the public health emergency made it obvious that being politically active would be more complicated this year. Vote.org estimated the site had at least 15 million visits to check registration status, register to vote or find a polling place ahead of the 2018 midterm.
By the time the 2020 election is over, the group is expecting 10 times that much traffic — mostly from people younger than 35.
The spike in recent weeks has been from people seeking information about absentee ballots for voting remotely in primaries. It's encouraging evidence "people are still fighting for their right to vote," Hailey said.
The economic rescue package enacted a month ago included $400 million for states to spend as they wish making voting safer and easier amid the coronavirus crisis. Democracy reform groups and congressional Democrats are pushing to get much more than that in the next stimulus bill, which looks to get assembled in May.
While much of the attention has been on efforts in both red and blue states to use the grants to quickly and robustly expand vote-by-mail, which President Trump opposes, the money appropriated so far can be spent on a broad array of other efforts — including hiring people and buying equipment for easing registration or extending the deadline for signing up.
While 19 states and Washington, D.C., permit people to both register and cast ballots on Election Day, new registrations are cut off a month in advance in 15 states.
The number of registered voters has now crested 215 million, according to the the most recent data from the federal Election Assistance Commission, or 85 percent of Americans eligible to vote.
Registration groups do most of their work and achieve the best results during presidential election years. They helped boost the rolls of voters by 13 million between 2012 and 2016, a 6 percent increase at a time the national population grew half as fast. And a solid majority of those new voters — 57 percent according to the nationwide exit poll — voted for Hillary Clinton.
That suggests the success of registration efforts that rely on mobile apps and websites in coming months will give former Vice President Joe Biden and down-ballot Democratic candidates an edge. But Biden's allies are working to tamp down such talk.
"Registration is going to be an issue for everyone," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who's almost surely on the short-list of potential Democratic vice presidential candidates. "Traditionally both parties register people at events. And so, if there's no events and no way to go door to door, that's going to be a problem. It's not a partisan issue."
Kristen Clarke, executive director of the progressive Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said her organization has been "sounding the alarm" on registration for weeks, concerned about the number of potential allies that could remain out of reach until it's too late.
"I think we're talking millions, not hundreds of thousands," she said, adding: "If you're one of the few states that doesn't provide online voter registration, now is the time to do so."
Texas, the second largest Electoral College prize with 38 votes and a potential battleground in a very high-turnout election, is by far the biggest of the nine states that offer paper registration only. The others are purple Maine and New Hampshire and reliably red Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. Oklahoma is in the process of implementing an online system but has not promised it will be ready anytime soon.
In these states, residents may download forms if they do not want to get them in person at government offices. Then they must print them, complete them and return them in person, by mail or sometimes by fax to county or state election officials. Under normal circumstances, anyone without a printer at home could go to a local library or another community center, but Covid-19 has ruled that out in many states for at least another month.
The EAC estimates 3.9 million eligible adults are not registered in the nine paper-only states, which actually amounts to a near-national-average 14 percent of their combined voting age populations.
To fill the gap in accessibility, would-be voters who request an application on the Register2Vote website will be mailed a paper form, generated by the federal EAC, that amounts to a generic registration application 49 states will accept if all the state-specific questions are answered properly. (The form is no good in North Dakota, which doesn't require a completed registration by voters.)
Register2Vote also sends a postage-paid envelope for returning the form to the right state agency, then tracks every form it sends to ensure it ends up at the right address and is processed in a timely manner.
The group was started in Texas two years ago and facilitated 160,000 new registrations in the last six weeks before the midterm, said its founder, Madeline Eden. She holds out reasonable but not excessive hopes for success as the program expands nationwide during the pandemic.
"We haven't changed our goals in terms of what we're trying to accomplish," she said. "But I don't see how the pandemic won't impact it. There will be fewer people registered."
In paper-only Montana, Amara Reese-Hansell, program director of the youth civic engagement organization Forward Montana, said Covid-19 has complicated the group's plans for get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of the June 2 primary. Unable to conduct in-person organizing meetings, the group is reliant almost totally on text messages, online advertising and social media posts. The group has been in direct communication with state officials to keep up-to-date with election changes.
The good news, Reese-Hansell said, is that civic engagement groups, election officials and voters in her state have formed solid bonds even at a time of social distancing.
"There's so much about what's happening right now that feels dark and heavy, but I think this moment has provided new opportunities to learn and collaborate," she said.
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