Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

Just as artists and comedians have migrated online and performed on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms, voter mobilization groups have been forced to innovate and prioritize their digital efforts.

It’s clear the coronavirus pandemic will be the defining issue of the 2020 election, but increasingly, it looks as if the crisis may also shape the makeup of the electorate.

New voter registration figures have plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because the places where Americans often register to vote— county clerk’s offices and motor vehicle bureaus—have been closed and tens of millions of people have stayed home, avoiding many of the public spaces generally trafficked by voter registration groups. 

Those groups, eager to register eligible, hard-to-reach voters such as young people and communities of color, have been forced to overhaul their operations and adapt to the new normal. Gone are the in-person voter registration drives and door-to-door canvasses of the pre-pandemic world. In their place are robust digital efforts centered around peer-to-peer texting campaigns, social media engagement, and innovative new ways to interact with voters.

“We’ve had organizers get really creative and start to explore platforms like Animal Crossing or Minecraft and TikTok,” said Alex Butcher-Nesbitt, deputy national press secretary for NextGen America, a progressive advocacy group focused on youth voter turnout.

Just as artists and comedians have migrated online and hosted performances on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms, organizations like NextGen have been forced to innovate and prioritize their digital efforts.

“In the absence of people gathering in the student center and the dining hall, there are these new virtual gathering places, so we’re meeting them as best we can in those places,” Butcher-Nesbitt said. 

The group is better primed than most for such a shift, given its focus on young voters who spent a substantial amount of time online even before the pandemic. “We’ve always been committed to meeting voters where they are, whether that’s on campus or online, so the fact is we’re doing something we already did. It’s just taking more of our time,” Butcher-Nesbitt said.

This year, NextGen is working in 11 states—Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin—and aiming to reach 4.7 million young voters between the ages of 18 and 35 across a variety of mediums, including online platforms, by mail, and “hopefully once again in person at some point,” Butcher-Nesbitt said. 

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The group is also aware that the shutdown of motor vehicle offices, local government offices, and libraries—where people frequently print out registration forms—has made it more difficult for many Americans, especially those in communities of color, to register to vote. To address this issue, NextGen has begun sending voter registration and vote-by-mail mailings specifically targeted to communities of color. 

“We’re already seeing some really interesting returns here,” Butcher-Nesbitt said. “Single women, particularly Latina women, are returning their applications at the highest rate.”

The group’s efforts are increasingly vital, given the massive drop in new registrations during the pandemic. “In a lot of states that we’re working, we have seen the voter registration rate drop significantly and that’s kind of the gap we’re having to advocate to fill,” Butcher-Nesbitt said. 

In Virginia, for example, there were only 5,647 new voter registrations in April, a 73% drop from April 2016 and an 81% drop from April 2012, according to registration data published by the Virginia Public Access Project. 

State officials attributed the decrease to the closure of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles offices in March. 

“In-person transactions at the DMV are obviously not happening at the moment,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper told the Virginia Mercury. “That reduces the number of interactions with the application process, as well as the fact that third-party groups can’t engage as they would at festivals and large gatherings of people.”

Virginians can still register to vote by mail or online through the state’s election website or the DMV’s website, but they appear to be doing so in spare numbers. 

A similar trend appears to be playing out across the country. In Kentucky, where voters can also register online, the state went from a net gain of 7,000 new registrations to only 500 in March, the state’s secretary of state, Michael Adams, told NPR this week. 

In total, 39 states and the District of Columbia allowed online registration as of January 2020, but several others, including North Carolina, have responded to the pandemic by making it easier to register to vote online.

NextGen isn’t alone in this work. Rock the Vote, a nonprofit nonpartisan group that also focuses on young people, has launched a virtual summer initiative to register 200,000 new voters. The effort, “Democracy Summer,” will feature online trainings, campaigns and events to register, organize, and mobilize young voters. The initiative will launch with a June 18 event featuring a star-studded lineup of live performances and speakers. 

Rock the Vote is also partnering with Influential, a tech platform that connects pop culture and social media celebrities with brands. Together, the groups intend to call on celebrities, TikTok stars, and YouTubers to promote the group’s voter registration efforts and encourage young people to vote.

While national groups typically receive more of the attention, state-based organizations are also working to try and make up for the loss of in-person registrations. 

“As all voter engagement organizations should do, we’ve remained committed to providing fact-based voter information to eligible N.C. citizens,” said Dwan Jones, communications director for You Can Vote, a North Carolina-based mobilization group. “With the pandemic, we’ve continued that commitment by ensuring these fact-based, nonpartisan resources are easily available online.”

The group has created a host of digital resources, including videos and how-to-guides for voter registration, and taken to social media to encourage residents to register to vote online.

Some organizations are also making tweaks to existing, lo-fi efforts. In Ohio, for example, a grassroots group called Mobilize The Vote is holding a “Socially Distanced Together Postcard Party” to contact voters who have moved and not yet updated their voter registration.

Organizations like these and others have been growing their footprints in recent years, as voter registration has become a key plank of the political process on both sides of the ideological aisle. It’s widely believed that Democrats stand to benefit from registering nonvoters, who are often younger, poorer, less educated, less white, and more likely to be women. But as a February 2020 survey from the Knight Foundation found, that perceptiondoesn’t necessarily hold true across the country.

The survey—which polled 12,000 people who are eligible but not registered to vote, or who are registered but rarely vote—found that non-voters would add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates, while noting that “important differences exist across swing states.”

Nationwide, 33% of nonvoters said they had a slight preference for the Democratic nominee (33%) over President Trump (30%), but the data by swing state shows that if all nonvoters turned out for 2020, Trump would be the non-voter favorite in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Hampshire. The Democratic nominee, meanwhile, would be favored by non-voters in Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Their votes would be evenly split in Minnesota and Nevada, the survey found.

“Conventional wisdom has been that if all nonvoters turned up to vote there would be an overwhelming win for the Democratic Party,” Evette Alexander, a director at the Knight Foundation who participated in the survey design, told FiveThirtyEight. “But I think what we’re seeing in the survey is that both parties can and should try to engage. There is room for both parties to engage nonvoters and to both have turnout increase.” 

In short: Nonvoters could hold the key to the 2020 election. A post-mortem on the 2016 election found that by not participating—which in many cases was the result of voter suppression—nonvoters played a decisive role in Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton. 

Nonvoters could once again be a huge factor come November, and both Democrats and Republicans have recognized that and committed to registering and mobilizing new voters during the pandemic.

It remains to be seen if the work by NextGen and others are enough to compensate for the drops in voter registration figures, or if in-person registration booms as states reopen, but one thing is clear: The 2020 election is going to be the coronavirus election, and in more ways than one.