After a summer of protests and patriotism, why aren’t more Texans registered to vote?

Tribune Content Agency

FORT WORTH, Texas — After months of demonstrations in the streets, and proclamations by both political parties that this is the most important presidential election in modern times, one might think this would be a record year for voter registrations.

It’s not — not by a mile.

New voter registrations are significantly down across Texas and the nation, according to the Washington-based Center for Election Innovation and Research. In huge electoral states such as Texas and Florida, registrations were down as much as 70% in April and May — compared with the same period in 2016, the last presidential election year — as many potential voters were stuck in their homes because of the pandemic.

Tarrant County, which was once considered a Republican hotbed but is now in play for many Democratic candidates, logged 73,652 new voters from Jan. 1 through Sept. 23. That’s a 13% decrease from the 84,412 voters who registered during the same period in 2016, according to the Tarrant County Election Administration.

That decrease is magnified by the fact that the Fort Worth area population grew by 4% during the past four years.

Heider Garcia, Tarrant County election administrator, said he isn’t overly concerned that North Texans are missing a chance to exercise their right to vote.

Garcia said the amount of voter registration applications arriving at his office has increased during the past three to four weeks, as more residents have felt comfortable venturing out in public. He expects the number of applications to spike even more dramatically as the Oct. 5 deadline for registering to vote approaches.

“I think we’re going to have really high turnout,” he said. “I don’t think there is low excitement about this election, on all sides.”

During a normal year, the summer before a presidential election is a time when volunteers hit the streets to sign up new voters — including those who have just turned 18 and are eligible to go to the polls for the first time, and those who have recently moved to the county.

But this year, many public gatherings where volunteers might have been registering folks — including high school graduations, college campuses, concerts, ballgames and campaign events — were shut down because of the coronavirus. Driver’s license offices — another place where voter registration takes place — also were closed for months.

“Because of the (pandemic) conditions, the work that would have been done two months ago is being done now,” Garcia said. Early voting begins Oct. 13 in Texas.

Residents who register late then show up at an early voting polling site and discover that their name isn’t on the list of registered voters — a rarity, but a stronger possibility this year because early voting is starting six days earlier than normal — will be allowed to fill out a provisional ballot.

Provisional ballots will then be verified at the conclusion of the Nov. 3 election, Garcia said.

Representatives of both parties disagree on which candidates could be hurt most by the lower voter registrations.

Texans aren’t required to choose a party affiliation on voter registration documents, so there’s no way of knowing for sure which party stands to benefit from new voter registrations.

Rick Barnes, Tarrant County Republican Party chairman, said he isn’t surprised by the trend. He thinks Democrats are to blame for the decrease because their candidates have mostly eschewed face-to-face campaigning during the pandemic, and fewer of their volunteers are going door to door to sign people up.

On the contrary, Barnes said, teams of Republicans are going out on weekends and leading registration drives, in coordination with the campaign staffs of various candidates in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

“My guess is that the lower numbers are due to the fact that the Democrats have a very limited ground game due to their response to COVID-19,” Barnes said. “Of course, the best way to manage a responsible voter registration program is to literally be out and about with citizens.”

But Democrats say they have been working feverishly behind the scenes to register voters using a combination of tactics.

Luke Warford, voter expansion director for the Texas Democratic Party, said his organization has a data-driven team that is working extensively to reach voters through phone and text banks, online searches and through social media, digital and radio advertising.

“We expect hundreds of thousands of people to register in the last month across the state, and we still expect the registration numbers to get really high,” he said.

Using detailed analyses of publicly available data about Texans, the Democratic Party has been able to identify residents across the state who are eligible to vote but not registered, and target the campaign directly at them, Warford said.

Just in the first week of September, the party was able to communicate with 1.3 million unregistered Texans, he said.

Also, the Democratic Party has found a way to help residents who try to register to vote online — only to find out that Texas is one of a handful of states that doesn’t allow online registration. (Texas does allow a limited amount of online voter registration while updating a driver’s license online, because of a recent court case.)

Using computer modeling, the party projects that about 70 to 75% of newly registered voters are aligned with Democratic candidates, he said. Also, the party projects that 60% of new registrants are either people of color or under 25 years old — both demographics that tend to favor Democrats, he said.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political science professor and department chair at the University of North Texas in Denton, said he’s not surprised by the low numbers of newly registered voters.

“It’s not easy to register to vote,” he said. “I may see my favorite NBA player with the word ‘Vote’ on his jersey, but then I can’t find it (the registration application). It should be easy, but after three clicks people will just stop and give up.”

Eshbaugh-Soha said the low voter registration probably hurts Democrats more than Republicans, but Democrats also probably stand to gain more by any last-minute uptick in registration between now and the Oct. 5 deadline.

“There could be an uptick. People are starting to come out of the fog of what has happened in the last few months,” he said. “It’s something the campaigns need to be aware of.”


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