Voter registration lags in Colorado amid lockdowns, distancing

Drop of 40% recorded March-May as compared to 2016

By: - July 13, 2020 11:29 am

A ballot box stands outside the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library on Welton Street in Denver on June 17, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Heading into the 2020 election, Salvador Hernandez, the Colorado state director of Mi Familia Vota, was hoping to register at least 12,000 new voters as part of the group’s mission to activate the Latinx voting base.

Then came COVID-19.

Plans to reach teenagers in high school classes had to be put on hold as classes went online. The festivals and concerts where volunteers could reach new voters were cancelled. Even Department of Motor Vehicles offices, where voters are registered when renewing or applying for a driver license, were closed for weeks.

Hernandez had hoped to kick off Mi Familia Vota’s registration effort in earnest in March, just as social distancing restrictions and lockdowns started, forcing the group to retool and watch as registration numbers dipped.

“We were expecting by now to have some ground covered in that goal,” Hernandez said. “We’re still committed to our goal, but we’ve had to adjust our timeline. For a group like ours that does grassroots organizing, this has really affected our ability to reach the community.”

Between March and May 2020, Colorado registered 41,681 new voters — 40% fewer than the same three-month stretch in 2016. In April, only 6,415 new voters registered, compared to 22,208 in April 2016 and 10,822 in April 2018 (overall, registration is higher than it was in 2018, since midterm years typically have low registration activity).

Nationally, the pandemic has blunted registration numbers, which had been higher than they were in the 2016 cycle before March. TargetSmart, a national Democratic technology firm, analyzed data from 28 states and found that only one — Rhode Island — did not experience a slowdown in registrations after mid-March. Twenty-one states, including Colorado, saw registration drop by at least 50% compared to the first two months of the year.

TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier said the slowdown is in large part due to people not having opportunities to register in person, especially at DMVs. Some of the slowdown also has to do with a front-loaded Democratic presidential primary that was essentially decided in early March.

But, he added, the pandemic has also taken the election off the front pages.

It’s safe to say that because people have been more cautious, staying at home and quarantining, registering to vote has not been front of mind

– TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier

“It’s safe to say that because people have been more cautious, staying at home and quarantining, registering to vote has not been front of mind,” Bonier said. “We’re seeing states adjusting slowly, and as they pivot and adapt, we should expect to see these numbers rebound.”

But advocates worry that losing valuable spring and summer months may hurt efforts to bring in first-time voters, especially older people who may not be comfortable registering online. In-person drives and community events are typically crucial in educating registrants and walking them through the process.

Mike Carter, spokesman for New Era Colorado, said the cancellation of events like Denver Pride is a blow for his organization, which focuses on youth turnout. New Era has had to accelerate its online offerings, like speaking to online college classes or posting videos as events move online (including the virtual Pride celebration). That’s allowed New Era to not fall too behind on its goals; by the end of May, it had registered 8,000 people.

“This is not how we expected to be operating in 2020. But we have gotten to test out some new strategies,” Carter said. “People exist in spaces where we can reach them without seeing them face-to-face, and we’re working on strategies we can keep doing in the future.”

Mi Familia Vota had hoped that half of its new registrants would be high school or college students, and many of them have been able to sign up after social media campaigns. But Hernandez said that older voters have been more difficult to reach. The group has launched outreach campaigns through traditional Spanish media and by targeting families, but Hernandez said the “technological barrier” remains a hurdle.

“We see ourselves as an important resource for the community, especially when people are voting for the first time. With COVID being such a big barrier right now, it’s possible that the Latino vote may not be there to the fullest potential,” Hernandez said.

The state has not yet announced any changes to voter registration or in-person voting in November.

Still, Colorado’s progressive voting laws make it better positioned than most states to weather a difficult registration season. The state allows same-day registration and, under a 2019 law, granted 17-year-olds the right to vote in a primary if they will be 18 by the time of the November election. In May, the state announced that, compliant with a 2019 law, eligible voters are automatically registered at the DMV, as opposed to the former system where voters would simply be asked to register.

Universal mail-in voting has also boosted participation. The June 30 primary had the highest turnout of any primary in state history, with 44.96% of active voters returning ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the voting rights advocacy group Colorado Common Cause, said that’s reason for celebration but that the state will need to keep working to ensure that everyone who wants to can register and cast a ballot.

“Colorado has done a lot of things right. We’re much better situated than some other states,” Gonzalez said. “Nobody knows exactly what November will look like in terms of COVID, and I don’t want anybody to not vote because they’re worried about exposure.”

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Jason Plautz
Jason Plautz

Jason Plautz is a Denver-based journalist who covers the environment, politics and the intersection of the two. His writing has appeared in Science, High Country News, HuffPost, The Atlantic, 5280 and other publications. He participated in the Ted Scripps Fellowship for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2017-2018.