If this were like any other election year, volunteers for MOVE Texas, which works to engage young voters, would’ve been at Mooov-In Day at the University of Texas at Austin, equipped with sign-up sheets, clipboards and fold-out tables, looking to register thousands of young people moving away from home for the first time.
But 2020 is not a normal year.
“All the traditional places are off limits,” said Charlie Bonner, the communications director for the organization. “We’re not deploying any of our organizers to campuses because it’s not responsible.”
The coronavirus has brought widespread concern about how people can vote safely in Texas this November, especially as the state’s elected leaders have resisted the idea of broadening who is eligible to vote by mail. But the state is already seeing one major effect of the pandemic on voting: It’s much harder to register voters.
Forty-one states have passed legislation to allow residents to register to vote online. Texas is not one of them, and the state’s Republican leadership has long fought efforts to allow for an online voter registration process. Voting advocates and local election officials have made do with mail initiatives, avoiding what were once standard in-person initiatives at community events, high school graduations and public squares.
In the first seven months of 2020, new registrations in Texas were down nearly 24% compared with that same time frame in 2016, according to numbers from the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research. In April alone, registrations dropped 70%. Numbers have climbed back up over the summer, but that rebound might not be enough to get the state back to where it could have been, said David Becker, the center’s director.
“We’re not seeing an increase in voter registration activity that compensates for the decrease that we’ve seen in previous months,” he said. “In Texas, there’s still a pretty big overall deficit for the year in terms of new voter registration activity.”
The effects are being felt by both parties. Democrats and Republicans told The Texas Tribune that they’re struggling with voter registration in the era of COVID-19.
On the Republican side, the super PAC Engage Texas is emblematic of the challenge. By February, a month before the pandemic hit Texas, it had raised nearly $12 million and had hired nearly 300 staff members with the goal of registering hundreds of thousands of new likely Republican voters before the 2020 elections. The political action committee had shut down by May, citing challenges created by the coronavirus.
“It’s more difficult to register voters face to face and by traditional voter registration methods like door-knocking during the pandemic,” said Luke Twombly, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Texas who said the party was not allowed to coordinate with Engage Texas.
However, Twombly said, the party has found “multiple alternative methods that have proven to be very successful at registering voters during the pandemic.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have long contended that Texas isn’t a red state, but a nonvoting state — one they could flip if they registered and energized more voters. Party leaders entered the 2020 cycle determined to register large amounts of young people and people of color who are opposed to the Trump administration. Groups like Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by People were gearing up for a massive blitz, only to find they can’t go door to door. Now many are hosting virtual phone banks with the hopes of registering hundreds of thousands of voters.
Voting rights groups are experiencing similar challenges. Since its founding in 2012, Mi Familia Vota’s Texas chapter registered over 50,000 new voters, a number the group thought would have gone up in 2020. But the group is anticipating seeing a 20% decrease in its final voter registration numbers since 2018, said Angelica Razo, the Texas state director for the group.
Many of the potential missed registrants, Razo said, are in the state’s growing Latino population, which has been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, and lower-income residents who don’t own printers and are therefore unable to print off voter registration forms.
“Latinos have been disenfranchised, and there has not been a lot of investment in Latino electoral participation,” Razo said. “But the energy is there, and people are fired up. Our people don’t want to get stuck on the sidelines for this election. Mi Familia Vota is working to create systems and resources hubs that make this process as accessible as possible.”
Lately, there have been some signs of a possible, albeit small, rebound. Groups like the League of Women Voters of Texas and MOVE say they saw registration bumps over the summer; both groups attributed the change, at least in part, to Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Roughly 16,500 people registered to vote with MOVE between June and August, Bonner said; Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, also reported gains since the spring, though she was unable to provide exact figures.
The closure of driver’s license offices might have also played a role. While Texas has turned to online services during the pandemic, the state doesn’t allow residents to register when they renew their driver’s licenses online. And several state offices were closed or opened under a limited capacity as the pandemic worsened. Texas began the process of gradually reopening the driver’s license offices in late May.
In late August, a U.S. district judge found that Texas is “legally obligated” under the National Voter Registration Act to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote if they renew or update their driver’s licenses online. The judge ordered the state to have a system in place by Sept. 23 — less than two weeks before the registration deadline — but that decision could still be appealed.
Currently, Texans who want to register while using the state’s online portal are directed to a blank registration form they must fill out, print and send to their county registrar.
“I think it’s fair to say the pandemic had a huge impact on new voter registration activity,” Becker said. “You can’t go door to door and get people to register right now. You can’t set up at shopping malls. You can’t go to a college campus.”
In past years, many new voters signed up days before — or on — the registration deadline, which this year falls on Oct. 5. But if restrictions imposed by the pandemic proceed, a last-minute surge of new voters could be blunted.
Some of the loss may be offset by the Electronic Registration Information Center. In March, before the height of the pandemic, Texas joined the nonprofit consortium, which aims to assist states in increasing voter participation and keeping their voter rolls up to date. Participating in the program requires Texas officials to identify and conduct outreach to eligible but unregistered voters to encourage them to register to vote.
According to Stephen Chang, a spokesperson with the Texas secretary of state, the agency sent out “approximately 2.5 million postcards to residential addresses that appear to house individuals that are eligible to vote but may not be registered.”
“Postcards were also sent to households that include those currently 17 years old but who will be 18 by the general election and thus eligible to participate if registered in hopes of increasing participation among young people,” he said in a statement.
Still, many groups are working to reach potential voters online. Chimene pointed to Register2Vote.org, a website that has been accessible to people since March 2018, which walks people through filling out the voter registration application online and then sends it to them in the mail filled out with the person’s information and a stamped return envelope.
Jeremy Smith, the executive director of Register2Vote, said it registered 23,700 Texans from March to May and another 37,500 from June to July. Some experts say they think the latest online tools will likely have the biggest impact on college students and people younger than 25.
The Texas Democratic Party is doing something similar. In April, it launched registertexas.org, which also sends voters pre-filled voter cards with return envelopes. It also formed a “voter expansion team” in January with the goal of “expanding the electorate,” said Luke Warford, the director of voter expansion. On Sept. 7, the party said it reached out to 1.3 million unregistered Texans in the week prior, though it’s unclear how many followed through and registered.
The state Republican Party, meanwhile, has set the lofty goal of confirming that at least 100,000 unregistered likely Republican voters in the state complete their voter registration forms and send them to the Texas secretary of state by Oct. 5.
Slowly, while the state resumes its reopening process, groups are cautiously optimistic they’ll be able to return to in-person events — but likely not before the October registration deadline.
“It’s almost impossible to do boots-on-the-ground outreach right now, and any group doing that is reckless at this point,” Bonner said.
Disclosure: MOVE Texas, the Texas secretary of state, the League of Women Voters and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.