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.
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.
I find it interesting that while the one Republican-backed group that was trying to register voters gave up in May, while all of the Democratic and non-partisan groups have chugged along and found innovative solutions like the pre-filled-in applications that just need to be signed and stuffed in the mail. You tell me what that means about the relative levels of dedication. I said before that it was useful to have a Republican-backed group bump up against the reality of voter registration in Texas, as maybe that might give a little push to the eventual passage of a bill to allow online voter registration, which the earlier judge’s ruling cracked a door open for. But let’s be real, as with every other worthwhile election reform, the main prerequisite is going to be a Democratic trifecta in our state government.
Meanwhile, in other election innovations:
Utilizing its platform, Snapchat, the popular social media app, is registering new voters ahead of the election on Nov. 3. As of this report, the app has registered 407,024 people, according to data reported within the app. A spokesperson confirmed with Axios that the tally seen in the app’s “Register to Vote” portal represents the number of users who registered to vote via the app.
Snapchat is commonly used by millennials and Gen Z, including a wide number of people who recently turned 18 years old and who will have the ability to vote for the first time this year. To guide individuals through the ballot process and help ease the process of registering to vote, Snap–the company that owns the app–has partnered with Democracy Works’ TurboVote. To streamline the process of the registering feature, Voter Registration “Mini” allows users to register within the app itself instead of visiting registration sites. The tool became available last week and has already registered nearly as many voters as the app did in 2018 with the same feature.
For the 2018 midterm elections, Snap registered at least 450,000 new voters. Most of those who registered were between the ages of 18 to 24 years old and did so in key states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia, a company spokesperson said. According to the company, 57% of users who registered to vote with Snapchat went out and cast ballots, Axios reported. In addition to the voter registration tool, Snapchat is promoting a voter guide that allows users to search for terms associated with voting and the election, as well as guide them on how the process of voting works. To ensure users are prepared for Election Day, the app’s tool, called BallotReady, walks users through how to vote-by-mail and cast a ballot, with COVID-19 precautions in mind.
Give people the chance to use new technology in ways not originally envisioned, and they will. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case it certainly is. It’s up to us to ensure this kind of innovation is widely available.