Voters in suburban Henrico’s Short Pump precinct cast their ballots. The area saw a surge in Democratic voters after Trump’s 2016 election. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
With many government offices in Virginia closed for face-to-face business due to the coronavirus pandemic, new voter registrations in April plummeted from levels typically seen in high-interest presidential election years.
The state saw just 5,467 new voter registrations in April, a 73 percent drop from the same month in 2016 and an 81 percent decrease from 2012, according to registration data published by the Virginia Department of Elections and compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Officials said the dropoff can be explained partially by Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles offices being closed for in-person transactions. That activity can have a significant impact on voter rolls, allowing customers to register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or update their home address after a move.
Advocacy groups that conduct voter registration drives have also had to suspend normal activity, hindering efforts to register harder-to-reach groups like communities of color and the elderly.
“In-person transactions at the DMV are obviously not happening at the moment,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said when asked about the slowdown. “That reduces the number of interactions with the application process, as well as the fact that third-party groups can’t engage as they would at festivals and large gatherings of people.”
Would-be voters can still register through through DMV transactions conducted online or through the mail. Online registration is also available through the state’s election website.
The registration numbers could start to bounce back later this year if the public health crisis eases and life starts to return to something like normal. But the size of the dropoff and uncertainty about when the danger will pass raises additional questions about how the pandemic could impact voter participation.
“I do think that when the DMV in-person interactions resume we’ll see an increase in the number of transactions,” Piper said. “It’s hard to say whether it will return to a normal level. We do and will continue to encourage people to go online and apply to register to vote there or update their information.”
Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority, said that her organization registered about 9,000 voters in April of 2016. This year, she said, that work — which helps reach people who are less inclined to enter sensitive personal information into a website — has “pretty much stopped.”
“We’re not out in the community, in neighborhoods helping people face-to-face with this stuff now,” Nguyen said. “Is there a concern that voter registration may not catch up? Sure.”
Nguyen said she too is hopeful that as the election moves closer and more people are paying attention, conditions may have improved enough to allow voter registration drives to resume. Registration activity through DMVs could also see an uptick, she said, due to new legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly that automatically syncs DMV transactions to voter registration unless a customer chooses to opt out.
“I think there’s a lot of stuff that we’re all keeping an eye on to see what happens,” Nguyen said. “But right now everything is just at a standstill.”
All DMV offices have been closed since March 18, but the state is beginning to slowly reopen some locations for limited business.
On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam said 11 DMV offices will reopen starting Monday, but they will only handle business that can’t be done online, like getting an original driver’s license or vehicle registration. Customers will have to make an appointment to visit those offices.
“Anyone who can use DMV’s online services should continue to do so,” Northam said.
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