Challenges to Register New Voters
During any other election year, volunteers around the country would attend festivals, college campus events, and other events to sign up new voters.
But 2020 has been far from a normal election year. As explained back in July by Jen Miller, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio chapter of the League of Women Voters, “There are absolutely no festivals this summer. We don’t have volunteers at tables. We don’t have volunteers roving with clipboards. Obviously, we’re just not doing that.”
Compounding the issue was the fact that driver’s licensing bureaus and other state offices, which double as voter registration locations under federal law, were forced to remain closed during the spring lockdown.
As a result, due to the dangers of the pandemic, millions of people who would typically register to vote for the first time no longer have easy access to do so. The numbers prove it: new voter registration in 12 states and the District of Columbia fell a full 70% in April 2020 compared to January 2020. A glance back at the year 2016 shows that new voter registrations rose by 43% during that same period four years ago.
Fortunately, online services like Vote.org and Rock the Vote were able to step in and guide new voters through the process of online registration. More than 300,000 people initiated online voting registrations through those sites in the first week of June alone.
Significant Expansion in Absentee and Mail-In Voting
A downswing in new voters isn’t the only way that COVID has changed voting. The pandemic also initiated a seismic shift in the way Americans voted. In 2020, absentee and mail-in voting have become more popular than ever before.
An absentee ballot is used to cast a vote by mail when a voter can’t physically be present at the voting center on Election Day. Before the pandemic, absentee ballots were most commonly used by people in the military, living overseas, or with an illness or disability.
A mail-in ballot is used in five states- Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii- to conduct elections. Registered voters receive a mail ballot ahead of election day, which they fill out and mail back before Election Day or deposit at a secure voting location on Election Day.
The circumstances of this election year led many states to adjust their absentee and mail-in voting procedures for citizens who couldn’t or didn’t feel safe voting in person. California and Connecticut, for example, were among two of the numerous states that sent mail-in ballots to all voters. Other states such as Kentucky and Alabama suspended absentee and mail-in voting eligibility requirements so that all voters could cast their ballots by mail in the November 3, 2020 general election. Tennessee also temporarily waived its policy requiring first-time voters to vote in person. In Ohio, meanwhile, election officials were required to accept absentee ballot applications submitted via fax and email as well.
These unprecedented changes signified the threat level of the pandemic in the United States and may play a role moving forward in future elections.