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Voter Registration Has Plummeted in 2020

The Brennan Center finds that voter registration has declined by an average of 38 percent in 17 of the 21 states analyzed when compared with 2016 registration rates.

Published: September 21, 2020

Tomor­row is National Voter Regis­tra­tion Day. The day serves as an oppor­tun­ity for civic groups to come together to help Amer­ic­ans register to vote, so they are able to parti­cip­ate in the Novem­ber elec­tions. But the Covid-19 pandemic has frus­trated these efforts to help Amer­ic­ans exer­cise one of their most funda­mental demo­cratic rights. In a new analysis, we find that voter regis­tra­tion rates in many states lag signi­fic­antly behind those observed in 2016.

We analyzed regis­tra­tion rates in 21 states and found that the pandemic has led to a drop-off in new regis­tra­tions in 17 states relat­ive to the 2016 cycle. We report these rates in the table below.

We limited our analysis to the states that make monthly counts of registered voters avail­able on the website of the relev­ant chief elec­tions offi­cial. To capture the change in voter regis­tra­tion efforts during the pandemic, we calcu­lated the growth rate in regis­tra­tions between Janu­ary and August of 2016 and again between Janu­ary and August of 2020 to account for baseline popu­la­tion differ­ences in each of the states. foot­note1_02twzu6 1 In three states the Janu­ary to August window was not possible, based on the most recent report of registered voters. In these cases, we sought to keep the window for regis­tra­tions constant to reas­on­ably compare 2016 and 2020. In Flor­ida, the most recent report of regis­tra­tions is dated July 31, and we use the same window in 2016. In Idaho, the most recent report of regis­tra­tions is from June 2020, and we use the same window in 2016. In Michigan, regis­tra­tion rates in 2016 are based on repor­ted totals in Janu­ary and July, but the 2020 rate is based on a window between Febru­ary and July. While the shorter window in 2020 may bias the growth rates, we do not think this is likely because the shorter regis­tra­tion window in 2020 should push the growth rate down, unless there was a net reduc­tion in regis­tra­tions between Janu­ary and Febru­ary of 2020. We then compare these rates across the states to observe how regis­tra­tion efforts have been impacted by the pandemic.

The first and most strik­ing obser­va­tion is that most — 17 of the 21 — report lower regis­tra­tion growth rates in 2020 than in 2016. On aver­age, these 17 states have seen regis­tra­tions decline by 38 percent this year. For some states, the decrease is less than that — Wiscon­sin and Color­ado are below 2016 rates by 2 percent and 20 percent, respect­ively— while other states, like Mary­land and Arizona, are below 2016 regis­tra­tion rates by 87 percent and 65 percent, respect­ively. 

In four of the states — Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, and Utah — regis­tra­tions so far in 2020 are above those in 2016 by an aver­age of 36 percent. Alaska is farthest ahead among these states (up more than 85 percent compared to 2016), while Idaho is closer to parity with 2016 (up by about 5 percent). It is unclear why these four states performed better than the others relat­ive to their 2016 regis­tra­tions.

It’s import­ant to call out one anom­aly of the U.S. voting system that could exacer­bate these regis­tra­tion rate declines, espe­cially during a pandemic. Voter regis­tra­tion is a crit­ical, if unap­pre­ci­ated, compon­ent of the voting process. The United States is excep­tional in that regis­ter­ing to vote is the oblig­a­tion of the citizen and not, as is the case in many other demo­cra­cies, a govern­ment respons­ib­il­ity. The Bren­nan Center has long been concerned that putting the burden to register on the citizen will result in the elect­or­ate being a skewed repres­ent­a­tion of the Amer­ican people as a whole. To that end, we work with state part­ners to imple­ment auto­matic regis­tra­tion and other crit­ical voter regis­tra­tion reforms in states.

With six weeks to go before Elec­tion Day, it’s import­ant for those who have not registered to vote to do so as soon as possible. It’s also import­ant for regu­lar voters to doublecheck with their local elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors that they are indeed registered to vote to avoid any prob­lems this elec­tion season.

End Notes