WASHINGTON — Presidential elections are typically prime time for bringing new people into the political process, but the coronavirus pandemic is making voter registration more difficult than ever, prompting concerns that many young Americans and other nonvoters might miss their chance to get onto the rolls before November.
"This is the moment when we historically see people take action to register to vote," said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "The public health crisis has brought all of that activity virtually to a grinding halt."
Voter registration happens year-round, but the months leading up to a presidential election are crucial as interest in politics spikes and funding for registration efforts flows in.
In the runup to the 2016 presidential election, Americans filed more than 77.5 million voter registration applications, according to the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that helps states administer elections, and total registration topped 200 million.
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That still left tens of millions of eligible Americans who are not registered to vote. And this year, millions of new Americans will become eligible by turning 18 as Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012), the most diverse in history, is expected to surpass the silent generation (born between 1928 and 1945) as a share of the electorate.
Millions more Americans have moved and need to re-register at a different address, while others have been purged from the rolls for not voting in recent elections, including in key battleground states such as Wisconsin and Georgia.
But now, all the traditional ways of signing up voters are out the window, prompting concerns that a large swath of Americans will miss their chance to participate in this year's elections.
"Registration is going to be an issue for everyone," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who along with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is pushing for emergency voting reforms to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
"Both parties typically register people at events," Klobuchar added on a call with reporters. "And if there's no events, and no way to go door to door, that's going to be a problem."
Voter registration activists typically seek out crowds, but there are none now.
Students are not on campuses. Churches are not holding regular services. Fairs, parades and community events have been canceled. And even setting up a table outside a grocery store or a shopping area on a warm weekend afternoon is questionable.
Departments of motor vehicles are the source of about 45 percent of all voter applications nationwide, thanks to the Motor Voter Act, but they, too, are closed in many parts of the country. And so are other places where registration forms are typically available, such as libraries, high schools and government offices.
Another big source of registrations in states that allow same-day registration is polling places, but many of them will be closed in upcoming primaries and it's not clear how many will be open by November as states try to shift to mail-in balloting.
Groups that would typically be sending hundreds of canvassers into the field to sign up voters right now have shut down in-person operations and switched entirely to digital organizing.
"We've had a ton of small groups come to us for access to our tools so that people can start changing their canvassing programs to digital programs," said Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org, a nonprofit that registers and turns out voters online.
Digital efforts can fill a large part of the gap, but are not enough or available to everyone.
Hailey said many young people don't own printers, while access to the internet and the cost of postage can be an issue for lower-income people, many of whom are people of color.
Forty states offer online voter registration, according to the Election Assistance Commission. Those that don't — including some big ones that could be important in the general election, such as Texas and North Carolina — usually offer blank forms online that can be printed out and mailed in.
"We have a robust texting program and one of the responses we often get is, 'I don’t have a printer,'" she said. "In other times, we'd recommend a local library or somewhere they could print out the form, but we can't do that now."
Myrna Pérez, the director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, said that in addition to racial and economic inequities, online registration can also be difficult for people with disabilities, such as blindness, or non-English speakers who would typically rely on trained canvassers or poll workers to help them through the process.
"Online registration should be coupled with a massive voter education component, reminding people that they do need to register to vote and telling people how to do it," she said. "States are going to need to be creative and proactive about reaching out to eligible residents who are not registered."
Pérez said states should offer a hotline with various language speakers and technology to help the visually impaired. And Clarke is calling for states to mass-mail registration forms with addressed and stamped return envelopes to eligible but unregistered voters.
Young people are always hard to organize, but college students pose a unique challenge now since many campuses have been closed.
"Any college students who are registered at their campus address may miss their primary, may miss absentee ballot request deadlines," said Carolyn DeWitt, the President of Rock the Vote, which works to organize young voters. "For them, participating in these elections is more akin to being displaced after a natural disaster."
Ashee Groce, a student and Democratic activist at Spelman College in Atlanta, isn't sure if she'll be able to participate in Georgia's primary election in May or whether she'll have to register to vote somewhere else. She already missed the primary in her home state of California, which was held March 3.
"Now that I'm not in school, and I don't have a place to stay in Atlanta, I am bouncing from different states to different states," she said. "I'm uneasy not knowing how I'm going to vote."