But the monthslong lull in registration, at a minimum, has added an additional measure of uncertainty to the fall campaign, muddying the likely composition of the electorate. In some areas of the country, a swing of even several hundred voters could tilt the registration balance on Election Day.
“We talk about [registration] at every meeting,” said Sarah Mahler, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Nevada’s Washoe County, a swing county where Democrats outnumber Republicans by just over 100 voters.
Republicans, she said, “are watching the same numbers that we are.”
Democrats widely expect registrations to pick up before Election Day, and they have reason for optimism. Democrats have opened advantages in vote-by-mail, Trump’s support has been eroding across the battlegrounds, and many young people appear activated after Floyd’s death and eager to engage in the election. In addition, some Democrats expect registrations may be slightly higher than reported because the coronavirus has also slowed the process of adding new voters to the rolls.
Wessel, of NextGen America, said his group downgraded its voter registration projections for the year after the coronavirus hit.
“People like us can’t be out in the street with clipboards the way that we normally would be, and also DMVs are closed,” he said. “There’s a natural clip of this that happens when the economy functions normally that’s not happening now.”
But Wessel’s group and others have begun working in other ways to reach potential voters. With organizers unable to register young voters at many college campuses and other gathering places, they are reporting higher rates of return on direct mail appeals than in previous years. And NextGen is recruiting influencers on social media in college towns to include registration messages in their Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube channels.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation,” Wessel said. “We have work to do. But young people … while they’re not able to register the same way they normally are, I think they’re expressing how excited they are about politics and what’s going on in other ways.”
He said, “People don’t go into the streets and protest if they don’t want to have their voices heard … I think they’ll register and vote.”
Republicans point to their improved standing in registration compared to 2016 in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — all states Trump won that year despite Democrats holding a wider registration advantage than they do now. And Trump still has a financial and organizational advantage over Biden that could help with a registration sprint in the fall.
But in some ways, Republicans have just as much — if not more — reason to worry about voter registration. This was the year Republicans finally fell behind not only Democrats, but independent voters in registration in the 32 states and the District of Columbia that register voters by party, according to Ballot Access News, which tracks registrations.
Trump is polling far behind Biden nationally and in most swing states. And if he has any chance of catching the presumptive Democratic nominee, it will likely hinge on registering and turning out more white, noncollege-educated voters, a key part of his base.
But the coronavirus has disrupted Republicans’ registration efforts as well, by depriving Trump until recently of the massive campaign rallies that Republicans have relied on as a source of new registrants.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist who has long been critical of Trump, said it is possible that there are more base voters for Trump “who are going to come up through the floorboards” and register this year.
But “if they don’t have them registered by now, I’m skeptical that they exist,” he said.
Another prominent Republican strategist involved in voter registration efforts described the Republican Party’s work in the area as lagging behind. The TargetSmart report, the person said, suggested that Republicans had an opening they failed to fully exploit.
“That’s why we need to press the f—— advantage,” he said, “and we’re not.”