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The COVID-19 Voter Registration Crisis

COVID-19 has caused a voter registration crisis. The New York Times and FiveThirtyEight (article and podcast) covered work done by the Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR) that shows voter registration in 11 states (and DC) is down by 70% in April 2020 vs April 2016.


  • Voter registration was down approximately 70% in April 2020 vs April 2016 according to CEIR
  • Publicly available DC, VA and MD data indicate this issue continued into May, with those 3 areas down 33% YTD vs 2016
  • More than 77% of voter registration occurs in person, so changing the trajectory of registrations in a social-distanced 2020 will require a very different approach to registration

What’s happening?

Voter registration typically increases from one presidental election year to the next due to population growth. That was the case in January and, to a large extent, in February as well. However in March and April, the results dropped off a cliff as the CEIR shows:

Source: CEIR, "New Voter Registrations in 2020"

The CEIR’s report is limited. It only includes 12 sources that either provided their data directly to CEIR or published it online. The data also end in April due to the fact that most of these states publish this information significantly in arrears. Both the NYT and FiveThirtyEight note that there’s some evidence that registrations picked up in May and June with reopenings and increased voter engagement.

Of the 12 sources, DC, Virginia and Maryland have provided an online update with May results so I collected the new data into a spreadsheet. Here are those three locations with May included:

Source: Google Sheet

You can more clearly see the COVID-19 impact that begins in February and March if you look at cumulative registrations:

Source: Google Sheet

As you can see, there’s a slight pickup in May but it still lags behind May 2016 and leaves cumulative registrations down 33% vs four years ago.

Why is the COVID-19 impact so large?

This dropoff in registrations isn’t surprising because most registration currently happens in person. The Census Bureau does a Voting and Registration Supplement to their Current Population Survey every two years in which they ask voters to self-report their method of registration. In the 2016 supplement, it looked like this for the 80% of respondents who provided an answer to the question:

Source: Google Sheet

Of all the reported methods, only two (in red) are remote: mail and online. Fully 77% of those responding to the question registered in-person at the DMV, at a registration drive, etc.

Source: Google Sheet

With COVID-19, nearly all of those methods are on hold so it’s not surprising that registration has collapsed. It’s difficult to imagine this changing significantly by November given the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

In order to alter this trajectory we’re going to have to fundamentally change our approach to voter registration to rely on integrated campaigns that encourage mail and online registration. That won’t be easy.

The Turnout Gap

I’ve been making my way through The Turnout Gap by Bernard L. Fraga to better understand who votes and why.

I had absolutely no idea how bad it got for Black voting after Reconstruction with the implementation of Jim Crow:

Black turnout declined from 61 percent in the eleven former states of the Confederacy in 1880 to 17 percent in 1900 and 2 percent in 1912. White turnout also dropped, but only to 55 percent in 1900 and 40 percent in 1912. (Page 57)

None of this was implemented with actual racial language in the law, of course. The legalistic restrictions were poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses that privileged those (white people) who had previously been able to vote. The law was coupled, as unjust laws usually are, with intimidation and violence.

Many of these policies primarily targeted Black people but these, and others, disenfranchised all people of color. I didn’t recall, for example, the “White Primary” which - since the South was effectively under one-party rule by the Democrats - prevented any non-white person from any meaningful participation in politics. This was as true for Latino people in Texas as it was for Black people in Mississippi.

As an aside, I owe my ignorance on these topics to a whitewashed North Carolina public school education and my own intellectual laziness for never seeking to understand this topic better. That’s how these systems reinforce themselves.

I was reminded of the awful history of white Democratic rule while reading Clare Malone’s The Republican Choice on FiveThirtyEight this morning. As Black people fought for their rights, the Republican party cravenly courted racist southern Democrats as part of the Southern Strategy. They did this, of course, while publicly disavowing racism (even though occasionally, someone says the quiet thing out loud).

All this is to say that voter disenfranchisement seems to be a feature, not a bug, of the American system. Though the parties switched in the mid-20th century and the rhetoric may have (prior to 2016, at least) softened, the tactics and the racists have remained the same all this time. The high democratic ideals of America - compromised and abridged from the moment they were articulated - mean nothing if those in power choose their voters but instead it’s the other way.

So do we give up? Is the system irredeemably unjust, corrupt and racist? Amazingly, after all that suppression, violence and disenfranchisement, today Black people turn out at the same rate (or greater) as white people. We should not, of course, view this through the lens of “progress”. It isn’t progress when your rightful belongings are returned to you after being stolen by force.

However, maybe, just maybe, this time it’s different. We may be on the precipice of additional long overdue steps towards a more just system. It’s time to protest, then vote.

Voting only changes things if it’s a truly universal franchise that represents the will of all the people, not just those who already hold the power. For those of us with privilege, we have an obligation to use that privilege against the systems that discriminate and disenfranchise. We must do everything we can to register voters whose voices have been historically silenced and enable them to cast a vote free of fear - or else we’re complicit.

Goodbye Cision

Today’s my last day at Cision. This marks the end of a 12-year run that accelerated through three acquisitions in the last two years. From founding Union Metrics, to being acquired by TrendKite, to being acquired by Cision to being acquired by Platinum Equity, I’ve learned more than I could have imagined.

More than anyone else, I need to thank Erik Huddleston for believing in what we built at UM and for his tireless efforts through all the challenges (and deals) that followed. His work literally changed my life.

TrendKite folks, thank you for welcoming the UM team with open arms. I learned so much in a short time but I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Kevin McKeown for the grad-level sales education and for his boundless energy and focus.

Gregg Spratto, thanks for taking a risk on me and giving me room to learn in a new role.

To my Cision colleagues, especially Jessica McAulay, David Bannister, Loïc Vienne, Lauren Futris, Chris Cutino, Jennifer Rumer (Estefani), Kurt Wyckoff, Jamie LaJoie and Shannon Yakimow I know Cision will get bigger, stronger and more human under your leadership.

As for me, I’m privileged to be able to make this move on my terms and to take time to consider what’s next professionally. In the interim, I intend to put my privilege to work. More soon.

Reposted from LinkedIn.