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Voter registration in Florida plunged amid the coronavirus pandemic

New voter registrations are expected to rise as the elections near and as the state reopens. But some question whether the drop could have an effect on the makeup of the electorate.

The number of voter registrations in Florida plummeted in April compared to prior presidential election years as the threat of the coronavirus curbed tactics used to reach potential new voters.

Slightly more than 21,000 newly registered voters were added to Florida’s rolls in April, a 60 percent decrease compared to the April before the 2016 presidential election, according to data provided by Florida’s Division of Elections.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1 amid concern about how the highly contagious novel coronavirus could spread through the state. Even before then, many Floridians began avoiding public spaces, while local driver’s license locations — where a significant proportion of new voters register — and other government offices closed to the public.

Third-party voter registration efforts by advocacy groups suddenly found themselves stymied, unable to do door-to-door outreach or set up booths at major events.

Now, as the state begins reopening and more Floridians are venturing out again, the number of voter registrations is likely to begin rising again. People who had delayed trips to driver’s license offices will likely return in the coming months.

Still, the decline in voter registration amid the coronavirus could have some real effects on the electorate for this all-important election year, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who studies elections.

“This is a cause for concern,” he said. “We’re seeing registration activity but not at the robust levels.”

Related: Florida elections officials urge DeSantis for help amid the pandemic

While it’s unclear exactly how the voter rolls could look come November, McDonald said it’s possible that underserved populations will be less likely to get registered than in years past because campaigns and “get out the vote” efforts may not be able to reach them as easily.

He said that could be a problem for Democrats in particular, saying that registered voters tend to be more Republican than the overall adult population. Democrats have also historically tended to rely more on in-person voter registration efforts than Republicans.

Wendy Weiser, vice president of the democracy program with the Brennan Center for Justice, recently called issues with voter registration amid the pandemic a “ticking time bomb.” She noted particular concern about voter registration for people who don’t have driver’s licenses or good internet access.

Voter registrations have fallen across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic. In Virginia, April registrations were down 73 percent compared to April registrations ahead of the 2016 presidential election. In Texas, an analysis by the Austin American-Statesman found that new voter registrations had fallen particularly in large, urban counties.

In the six months before March — before the pandemic had really gripped the United States — voter registrations had been outpacing 2016 levels, according to data from Democratic voter targeting firm TargetSmart.

Florida’s own voter registration data shows the same trend. Voter registrations in March fell below 2016 levels, then nosedived further in April, the data shows.

As of midday Wednesday, the state had not updated its totals on new voter registrations to include May numbers.

Data provided from Hillsborough County showed that May new voter registrations in that county continued to significantly lag May 2016 levels.

Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office, said she expects new voter registrations to rise as the deadline for registering for November’s general election nears. “We always get more applications as we get closer to a registration deadline, especially when we get closer to a presidential election deadline,” she said.

Florida has an online voter registration form, which can help provide access during this period, McDonald said. But he said it can’t solve the problem of people not going to government offices or being reached by voter-registration drives.

State data shows that the percentage of voter registrations attributed to third-party organizations fell significantly in April, from about 16 percent in March to less than 1 percent.

But Frederick Velez III Burgos, national director of civic engagement for the Hispanic Federation, said those numbers are missing the work that organizations like his are doing to get people to register online.

“We haven’t gone away,” he said. He said his organization is relying on phone calls, text messages and online campaigns to try to get people registered. He noted that, nationally, the contact rate for phone calls has increased, possibly because more people are at home right now.

“We are collecting less voter registrations than we would be doing if we were on-site, but more than we thought we’d do at the beginning,” he said.

Many grassroots efforts were paralyzed in April amid the coronavirus, said Teresa Guzman Pagan, voter registration manager for The New Florida Majority. Her organization is ramping up online efforts and doing more phone banking and texting, but it’s just not possible to reach all eligible voters with calling or texting, she said.

Still, she said she’s optimistic about turnout in 2020 elections.

“It seems like people are more active than they had been in past election years,” she said. “People can see that voting is life or death. The people that represent you are making decisions that impact people’s lives.”

Some organizations said they are shifting some of their emphasis to getting people signed up for mail ballots in hopes of increasing turnout.

That includes NextGen Florida, which focuses on turning out younger voters. But Justin Atkins, Florida state director for the group, said there’s also a focus on new strategies to help register voters.

His organization has been having more one-on-one conversations on social media platforms like Instagram, has been sending more direct mail and recently presented a virtual drag show hosted by Axel Andrews, who survived the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

Atkins said his organization is now reevaluating what it looks like to reach young voters in person, saying there are discussions about the ethical and safety issues of returning to college campuses.

Atkins said voter registration and turnout is especially key in Florida because it’s a “1 percent state” where races are sometimes won or lost by the thinnest margins.

Ryan Hurst, executive director of voter registration organization Forward Florida Action, said the April registration numbers are “absolutely alarming.”

Hurst brushed off a question about the recent scandal and subsequent departure from public life of founder and former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, saying the organization is “rocking and rolling.”

But he acknowledged that his organization has been having a challenging time getting people registered amid the pandemic and economic downturn.

Everyone is trying to adapt as things change, he said.

“It’s apparent that COVID-19 has changed everything in our society in how we go about our daily lives,” Hurst said.

How to register to vote

To register, change your party affiliation or check your registration status, you can go to the state’s official online site at RegisterToVoteFlorida.gov.

Paper voter registration forms can also be downloaded from the state’s Division of Elections website (https://dos.myflorida.com/elections/for-voters/voter-registration/register-to-vote-or-update-your-information/) or from local county supervisor of elections websites.

You can also register in person at county supervisor of elections offices, driver’s license offices, public libraries or other voter registration agencies. (https://dos.myflorida.com/elections/for-voters/voter-registration/national-voter-registration-act/)

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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