Image by McKenna Martin/Denzel Boyd Black Lives Matter protests and voter registration
Image by McKenna Martin/Denzel Boyd

“There’s no point in us going out to protest and doing everything we do if no one bothers to go vote,” one activist said, calling it an important part of “[making] sure you do what you need to do to protect Black lives.” 

This article is part of COURIER’s Your Vote 2020 hub. For more stories from each of the battleground states, along with national reporting, visit the site here.

When political strategist Tom Bonier began analyzing voter registration data at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he was disappointed with what he discovered. Registration drives and canvassing efforts had tapered off due to stay-at-home orders and the need for social distancing, especially among Democrats, as Joe Biden’s campaign ceased door-knocking activities while President Donald Trump’s did not.

That changed drastically, however, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests that came in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in May, which sent millions into the streets to call for justice and systemic change. Amid all the protesters were folks with clipboards and links to online tools helping people get registered to vote.

Impacts Already Felt

Bonier, CEO of Democratic political data firm TargetSmart, told COURIER he was watching local community leaders in Atlanta speaking to the press in late May as protests were heating up, saying, “We need to get people registered,” and “We need to get people to vote.” He began to wonder if the message would take hold. Because this was all taking place during early voting for the statewide primary election, his group looked to see if voter participation increased. He found that it did, especially among younger voters. 

These positive turnout numbers haven’t been isolated to just Georgia, either. According to a New York Times article published in late July, the number of voters casting ballots for Democratic presidential candidates had already surpassed 2016 levels.

Bonier said voter registration data across the states showed “consistently … in the last week of May, first week of June, a big spike in registration.”

TargetSmart looked at data from local election officials against their voter file and found that spike was primarily made up of Democratic and unaffiliated voter registrations. 

“And it wasn’t just a spike in registration, [but also] people who are registering there in that time period were younger and more diverse. They’re more likely to be people of color,” he said.

Alexandra Drakeford, a freshman at American University, organized two Black Lives Matter rallies in Huntersville, North Carolina, and said at both it was important for her to include voter registration as a key component. 

“There’s no point in us going out to protest and doing everything we do if no one bothers to go vote,” she told COURIER, calling it an important part of “[making] sure you do what you need to do to protect Black lives.” 

Black Lives Matter protest in Huntersville, NC
Photo by McKenna Martin

Tina Katsanos, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and chair of the Charlotte chapter of the Climate Reality Project, has also been out registering people to vote at rallies and protests.

During a Resist RNC rally during the Republican National Convention, Charlotte City Councilmember Braxton Winston, who rose to prominence during the 2016 protests following the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott and has continued to be outspoken on issues of racial justice and police brutality, walked up to Katsanos’ table. 

“I was like, ‘There’s no way you’re not registered,’” she recalled telling him, to which he replied he needed to update his address. 

While both Katsanos and Drakeford noted that most people civically engaged enough to go to a protest are already registered to vote, ensuring one’s personal information is up to date and active is also important, especially with recent purging of voter rolls, much of which is taking place in red states.

Cause for Pause?

Recently, the GOP has touted some numbers of its own, which counter Bonier’s narrative. 

In Pennsylvania—which Trump won by less than one percentage point—Republicans since 2016 have gained nearly seven times more registered voters than Democrats, according to Politico. Democrats also still outnumber Republicans in the state by about 750,000 voters.

J.J. Balaban, a Democratic consultant in the Keystone State, downplayed the news, telling Politico it was likely due to “‘Democrats’ who haven’t been voting for Democrats for a long time, choosing to re-register as Republican.”

Bonier has also pushed back, reporting in his newsletter that Democrats have registered almost 415,000 new voters since the 2016 election, compared to around 282,000 by the Republicans. (That analysis, however, doesn’t factor in voters who have changed parties.) He also argued Democrats have cleaned up their voter files more thoroughly than their Republican counterparts and speculated that most Independent voters would swing left.

According to state data, there were 4,125,889 voters registered as Democrats as of Sept. 7, and 3,376,463 registered as Republicans. 

The Importance of Turnout 

Of course, the election won’t be impacted by registration numbers alone, but will require turnout. 

Drakeford, the BLM rally organizer, said in the past she feels young people haven’t been as engaged, but that she believes people increasingly “see how we suffered the consequences from that kind of [apathetic] attitude.”

Her instincts appear to be correct: According to U.S. Census Bureau data, voter participation among 18-29-year-olds increased from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018.

A poll that came out in late July, conducted by Global Strategy Group for NextGen America, found 77% of voters under 35 reported being more motivated to vote in this upcoming election than in any other previous election. However, it also found over half of those voters said they were unsure of how to vote by mail.

Still, Bonier remains optimistic. 

“You’re still seeing the same skepticism now two years later that people were saying [in 2018]: ‘Well, sure, young people [and] people of color, they’re registering at higher rates now, as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, but will they vote?’ And all evidence that I’ve seen, and that precedent I’ve seen from 2018, would suggest, resoundingly, yes, they will,” he said.

“Every indicator that I see would suggest that they are poised to play a greater role in the 2020 election than they did in 2016, and that’s significant.”