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The Latest Voter Registration Trends

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the 2020 presidential campaign enters in what will certainly be an intense final seven weeks, we're going to focus in this part of the program on two factors that could influence the outcome - efforts to get people signed up to vote and efforts to persuade them not to. In a few minutes, we'll get perspective on what civil rights activists say are efforts to suppress the vote - at least, some people's votes. But first, we're going to take a look at that first step to getting people to vote - getting them registered. Normally, you can expect a big increase in the number of new voters registering to cast their ballots in a presidential election year. But 2020, as we all know, is not a normal year. We wondered what this looks like on the ground, so we called David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, D.C. That's a nonpartisan, nonprofit group which aims to improve election administration through research, data and technology. David Becker, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DAVID BECKER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let me just fact-check something I said earlier. Is that correct that - is there normally a big sort of surge in registrations right around this time - a couple of months before the election?

BECKER: Yeah, you're absolutely right. If you look at, in general, a four-year cycle voter registration activity, what you'll see is pretty steady activity occurring for about 46 months during those 48 months. And then in September and October of a presidential election year, you'll see a huge spike of activity.

MARTIN: So how does this normally take place? Is it - I guess, when I think about voter registration drives, I think about people at, like, the library or outside of a grocery store or maybe at a rally. You know, people in person encouraging people to sign up and helping them do it. So has the pandemic affected voter registration since so many things aren't taking place that normally would?

BECKER: Yeah, the pandemic has definitely affected voter registration according to our research. So when we looked at the data in the states where we could get hard data on new voter registrations - about a dozen states, including big ones like California and Texas and Florida - what we found was that in April, there was a 70% reduction in new voter registration activity compared to April of 2016, and that reduction continued through into May. And we're starting to see a rebound, but it's not making up for all of the activity that we've lost due to the pandemic.

MARTIN: If registering in person is so much harder, what about online? Can most people register to vote online in most states?

BECKER: Almost everybody can register to vote online if you go to your state election website. In most cases, it's your secretary of state, but in some states like North Carolina and Illinois and Maryland, it's your State Board of Elections. And there are online voter registration opportunities. Probably, the largest state where that's not available is Texas. But even then, there is a form that you can fill out online and print and mail in, so there will be voter registration information. And if you have any doubts about it whatsoever, you should go to your state election website. And you'll probably find it very easy to register or to check your registration and make sure that it's up to date.

MARTIN: Well, this year also seems different because of all the protests we've seen around the country. Do you have any sense of whether that level of engagement contributes to more people wanting to register to vote in a presidential election year?

BECKER: It can. That's certainly the case, and one of the things that we were already seeing pre-pandemic in 2020 was that enthusiasm to participate in this election this year was off-the-charts high. Then the pandemic hit, and we weren't sure what we were going to see and what the impact of turnout would be based on concerns about getting infected or social distancing requirements. But I think, given what we've seen in the primaries, we're seeing something that actually is somewhat inspiring - that people all across the country are really going to make their voice heard no matter what, regardless of who they're supporting.

MARTIN: And do new voters tend to favor one party or another?

BECKER: It depends on the election. I mean, it doesn't, by definition, benefit one party or another. I think one of the bigger challenges, especially for election administrators, is that new voters tend to be less frequent voters. They tend to be less familiar with the process. That's a particular challenge this year when so many changes have occurred where voters are going to be having options that they might never have considered before like voting by mail or voting early. So it's going to be so important for voters this year to plan and to do it early if they want to make their voice heard - if they want to vote successfully. Don't think about deadlines. Think about early opportunities. So that means the deadline to register isn't the key point to think about. You should be doing it now if you're not already registered.

MARTIN: That's David Becker, executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Thanks so much for talking to us.

BECKER: Thank you Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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