National Voter Registration Day: Coming soon and needed more than ever
The Coalition on Human Needs does not, and by law cannot, endorse candidates for partisan office. This is because, like many of the groups we partner with, our nonprofit tax status does not allow it. And because we believe in the rules governing democracy, we adhere fiercely to the laws governing elections and what is considered permissible electoral activity.
But what we can do, in keeping with our mission to lift up low-income and other vulnerable populations, is to encourage people to vote, and make sure they understand the myriad laws and deadlines concerning when and how to register to vote, how to vote early or vote by mail, and how to engage in day-of-election voting.
And so we want to spread the word about National Voter Registration Day, which this year falls on Tuesday, Sept. 22 – less than four weeks from today. This “holiday” was first recognized in 2012 as a single day of coordinated media and field events to help eligible people get registered or update their registration, ahead of state deadlines. Since 2012, the holiday, driven largely by volunteers and community partnerships but also by a small paid staff, has resulted in 2.9 million voters being registered or updating their registrations.
In 2019, despite it being an “off-year” with no regular federal elections scheduled, National Voter Registration Day resulted in 473,755 new or updated voter registrations – three times the previous record for an odd-numbered year.
The volunteers and staff in 2019 were able to garner 27 major national media stories about their work; 2,536 TV and radio stories; 1,348 local and online stories; and 2.5 million social media engagements (posts, likes, comments, and shares). And they did this with a miniscule annual budget – just $362,420.
This year, the goals of National Voter Registration Day are even more ambitious – to register or update the registration for one million voters. A look at the voter registration landscape in the age of COVID-19 reveals why this is so critically important.
Until the pandemic struck, reports NPR, the 2020 presidential election had been on track to see a huge surge in new voters. According to data from the Democratic targeting firm TargetSmart, voter registrations in January and February far outpaced those of 2016.
And then the bottom fell out in states all across the country.
After a record increase in January, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams was disappointed that registrations in his state almost flatlined. “February we had a net 7,000 new registrations,” he said. “And in March we had a net 500 new registrations.”
The New York Times reports that in Florida, there were 77,000 new registrations in January; that number fell to 21,000 in April. In North Carolina, new registrations fell from 112,000 in January to just 35,000 in April. Monthly registrations fell by two-thirds in Arizona and by three-quarters in California.
In a normal election year, volunteers from the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the League of Women Voters would have spent a recent 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,” Jen Miller, the Executive Director of the league’s state chapter, told the Times. “We don’t have volunteers at tables. We don’t have volunteers roving with clipboards. Obviously, we’re just not doing that.”
“The rules of engagement have been completely upended,” Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of New Virginia Majority, told NPR. “We’re not able to walk the neighborhood streets. We’re not able to set up tables at community centers and places where it’s easy to reach people in [the] community. So organizers have still continued to do the work around engaging folks. It looks a lot different.”
It is also important to note that millions of Americans – no one knows exactly how many – have been geographically displaced due to the pandemic. This is particularly true when it comes to college students, many of whom are not even in the same state they expected to be in before COVID-19 descended. The electorates of student-heavy states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire could look quite different this November.
So what can be done? In a recent report, the Center for American Progress (CAP) had some suggestions.
CAP writes that both state reforms and money from Congress is needed – desperately.
“For states to implement a full range of election reforms, they need resources—namely $3.6 billion in further federal funding—some of which could be spent on online and same-day voter registration programs as well as public education regarding how to register during the pandemic,” CAP notes. “Thus far, congressional Republican leaders have blocked attempts to pass full federal funding, despite bipartisan appeals from state and local election officials as well as public health experts and veterans’ groups, among others.”
CAP also notes that same-day voter registration might be a way to increase voter participation rates among communities of color as well as first-time voters and younger Americans who may be new to the voting process and unfamiliar with registration deadlines.
Despite the ongoing challenges, the voter registration news is not all bad. Groups such as Vote.org, Rock the Vote and Color of Change have seen online registrations surge – and other groups that usually rely on in-person registration and canvassing are turning to them for help. Online voter registration is allowed in at least 40 states plus D.C. The Coalition on Human Needs is launching its own nonpartisan effort to encourage registration and voting – more news about that soon.
In fact, National Voter Registration Day plans to take advantage of this online surge – last year, more than two-thirds of the voters it registered did so online.
“National Voter Registration Day will be uniquely positioned to address [the] backlog in voter registrations and ensure more eligible voters are registered to vote in November,” the group states on its website. “Despite changing circumstances, we are already capable of engaging voters en masse through digital means.”