States Must Boost Voter Registration During the COVID-19 Pandemic

An auditorium in Portland, Maine, holds in-person absentee voting and voter registration on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

The November 3, 2020, presidential election will occur three short months from now. But with the COVID-19 pandemic raging across most of the United States, voter registration numbers have sharply fallen in many places, meaning fewer people may be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote. It is imperative that states and localities immediately make necessary updates to voting procedures to ensure the election is conducted in a safe, secure, and inclusive manner. And congressional Republican leaders must stop blocking federal resources to fully fund these state efforts. Central to any fair election is a robust system that makes registering to vote as safe and convenient as possible for all people, including through online and same-day registration. Without reliable online and same-day registration options, many states will be unable to ensure that their citizens—particularly people of color and young people, who are often the most disenfranchised—can vote during this public health crisis.

The current state of voter registration

The COVID-19 pandemic presents historic challenges to our voting system during this presidential election year. Many state and local officials are taking or considering a range of steps to protect the integrity of the electoral process, keep voters safe, and guard against voter suppression. These steps include giving people the option to vote by mail—a common-sense way to help protect voters and poll workers from contracting or transmitting the virus. State officials must also provide citizens with accessible, in-person voting options, including early voting for at least two weeks before Election Day.

To cast a ballot, Americans in all states (except North Dakota) and Washington, D.C., must be registered to vote. Thus, effective and accessible voter registration systems undergird the entire election process. But without policies such as online and same-day voter registration, states risk disenfranchising Americans who encounter registration challenges due to the pandemic. As discussed below, many states already allow online and same-day voter registration, but even these states must dedicate enough resources to make sure voters can fully and fairly access these options.

The pandemic has made it nearly impossible for many traditional get-out-the-vote efforts that help register Americans to vote, including registration drives on college campuses or at public gatherings. It is not surprising that voter registration numbers have fallen dramatically in many states. According to a recent study by the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, the number of new voters who registered in 12 states and Washington, D.C., during the first four months of this year dropped compared with those who registered in 2016; this included a 70 percent decrease in registered voters in April. Nonetheless, some evidence shows that registration rates remain robust in certain states—and some actually rose in the past few months, perhaps due in part to the racial justice protests occurring across the nation. Online organizations such as Vote.org, Rock the Vote, and Color of Change saw recent surges of Americans who registered online in their states or began the registration process.

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. 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.

Online voter registration

States must streamline and modernize the voter registration process by ensuring that every eligible voter is able to register online using a secure, web-based portal.

Online registration is a way for people to register to vote from the safety of their homes and subsequently update or correct any information while also avoiding delays that sometimes come with postal delivery of registration forms during the pandemic. Voters who use an online option can also avoid traveling to local registrars’ offices to register in person. Many states allow voters to automatically register in person when they transact business with government agencies such as the Division of Motor Vehicles; but during the pandemic, while many government agencies are closed, automatic voter registration may not reach as many people.

In the 2016 presidential election, online voter registration accounted for 17.4 percent of all voter registrations. Unfortunately, 10 states still do not give voters the option to register online. Where feasible, these states should immediately implement this program. States that already allow online voter registration should ensure that their systems are working robustly, that they can handle a potential surge, and that all voters know about this registration method.

Same-day voter registration

States must also give all voters the choice to register to vote at the same time and location they cast their ballot, including on Election Day. In the 2016 presidential election, 1.3 million Americans used some form of same-day registration to vote. Yet 28 states still do not give voters a same-day registration option. These lagging states should adopt this policy immediately; otherwise, they risk disenfranchising millions of potential voters during the pandemic.

Same-day registration is indispensable for reducing barriers to voting and guaranteeing that people who may miss registration deadlines can still vote on Election Day. Some registration deadlines occur many weeks before Election Day, which is already unnecessarily burdensome in normal times; during the pandemic, it is even more difficult for voters to learn about or comply with registration deadlines. This is especially true for Americans who are ill with COVID-19 or are serving as caregivers. States must be fully staffed and prepared for a surge in same-day registrations.

The pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color, especially Black voters, who have been subject to a long history of voter suppression. Thankfully, same-day voter registration has been shown to increase voter participation, including among communities of color. Moreover, registering on the day they vote can be important for first-time voters and younger Americans who may be new to the voting process and unfamiliar with registration deadlines.

Conclusion

This November, voters will determine the future direction of our democracy. But most states are not yet prepared to conduct an election during the pandemic. Congress must agree to fully fund states’ implementation of updated election procedures. And state officials must aggressively prepare to make it simple and safe for people to register to vote, including by offering voters robust online and same-day registration options.

Michael Sozan is a senior fellow for Democracy and Government Reform and the Center for American Progress.