With the coronavirus shutdown compelling Texans to stay at home, new voter registrations were down nearly 30% for the first six months of 2020 compared with a similar period in the last presidential election year, according to an American-Statesman analysis of state figures.
The data suggest that a return to shutdown conditions to stymie the spread of COVID-19 could have profound, if murky, implications for races in a tight election year.
The Statesman previously reported that registration was markedly down in big urban counties, which tend to vote Democratic.
The latest numbers show that in Travis County, 4,326 new registrations were collected between March 1 and the end of June — with the bulk of those coming in June.
Over the same period in 2016, more than twice as many people registered in Travis County.
In some ways, the drop in new registrations reflected how the virus has hindered access to key civic institutions, from the library to the marriage altar.
In April 2016, 1,849 Texans registered at libraries or while getting a marriage certificate across the state. Last April, that number was just 418.
In April alone, during the heart of the shutdown, new registrations were down 76% statewide, largely because the bulk of voter registration takes place at driver’s license offices, which were shuttered until late May.
In April 2016, for example, 75,885 Texans registered to vote through the Department of Public Safety; this past April, that number was down to 2,206. (State officials said the reason there were any registrations was that DPS still was processing essential commercial driver’s licenses and handling some license-related forms by mail.)
April walk-in registrations at county courthouses, elections offices or other civic institutions were similarly down, from 8,586 four years ago to 1,863.
In May, too, overall voter registrations were running at 39% of the equivalent period in 2016.
But the data also showed that Texans eager to vote began registering in droves in June, with slightly more people registering then than in June 2016.
Ahead of the slowdown, 16.2 million Texans were registered to vote at the start of March — up 2 million from four years earlier, thanks to an increase in state population and elections that have drawn intense voter interest.
Registration typically increases through October — the last day to register for the November general election this year is Oct. 5 — making the stakes for an early fall lockdown, if it occurs, much higher.
On the last day of voter registration in October 2018, 40,000 people signed up in Travis County.
“I’m convinced we’ll have a good fall even if we’re locked down,” Travis County voter registrar Bruce Elfant said. “There are enough ways people who are motivated to vote can register.”
Volunteer deputy voter registrars — the people who might go door to door or sit beneath a small tent at a rock concert to register would-be voters — are starting to head back into the community, Elfant said.
“We’re looking for ways to safely allow people to easily register to vote,” he said, such as encouraging would-be voters to use Register2Vote.org.
Elfant said the county will soon unveil ways to encourage voter registration through text messages. “We had to throw out the playbook and start over,” he said.
Conventional wisdom holds that Democrats benefit from more voter registrants — the state is growing younger and more racially diverse, along lines that tend to favor Democrats, University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus told the Statesman. The Republican base tends to be older and already registered, since members of the GOP are less likely to move from one county to another, he said.
Even so, he said, both parties are reshaping their voter outreach efforts and the “state is booming in all kinds of ways, including in places that make Republicans more competitive.”
“It’s hard to perfectly map registration onto partisan outcomes,” Rottinghaus said.