Scalpels or Shotguns for Voter Registration


   Little Rock      Looking at the silver lining, rather than the clouds, it was encouraging this early in an election year to see voter registration replace voter suppression in the news for at least a minute, although certainly they are intimately connected.

One of our partners on some issues involving voter purges and analysis at ACORN’s Voter Purge Project is Catalist, and their insights into voter lists was front and center in a recent report.

An analysis by Catalist … shows that in 2020, the Democrats’ traditional edge in voter registration shrank to nine percentage points in key states, down from a 19-percentage-point advantage over Republicans in 2009.

Democratic strategists and super-PACs are worried that the narrowing gap in new registrations could be “consequential” and are arguing for different approaches to voter registration.  Implicit in this blue-side hair-tearing is perhaps a view that Democratic efforts have become complacent, expecting that changing demographics will do the job, rather than hard work in the vineyards.

            Whether Democrat or Republican, this is a valuable debate, although perhaps it should be more about mass registration, than targeted work.  The only real nonpartisan, little “d” democratic solution is automatic registration, similar to the draft, and let all comers vie for the support from all Americans, rather than privileging campaign-based machinery and deep pockets.  I digress perhaps, since we were talking about the debate at hand, rather than the one that should be on the table.

            Some are arguing that the nonpartisan, nonprofit approach, which is where we have spent the last fifty years, is too scattershot, and necessarily ends up in underserved communities of lower income and minorities, rather than in this new emerging suburban base for Democrats.  One group believes that there are two-million unregistered out there in the bushes, if they can be flushed out in a targeted approach.  Others worry that in casting the net, they may register as many Republicans as Democrats.

            Many of these arguments seem old-fashioned and ill-informed.  The notion that all of a sudden, the efforts are going to move from door-to-door to tables in front of Walmarts and in malls is almost funny.  Door-to-door needs to be done, but it’s expensive and inefficient, so rarely the critical methodology for voter registration.  Streets, yes.  Crowds or any place people gather, absolutely.  As for tabling at Walmarts and in malls, good luck with that.  Every once in a blue moon you might get lucky, but Walmart company policy for decades has been to NOT allow any kind of activity like voter registration in front of their stores.  Malls have succeeded in blocking access for all kinds of work, political, union, and otherwise, in the courts in a long-settled manner.

            Scalpel versus shotgun strategies are interesting debates, but a lot of this work on either side is done by data now, texting and calling, and generalized stalking of the unregistered in areas thought to be fertile or on lists generated in such turf.  At the end of the day, both strategies need to be on the streets to get the yield needed, and since July 2020, the streets have been secure for voter registration and engagement efforts, if people are ready to mask up and go out there.  It was a mistake for Democrats to have yielded the streets to Republicans in 2020.

The real truth is that more money and effort need to be put into voter registration period.  If the 2020 election proved anything, it was that an engaged electorate will vote, so we need to get everyone into the voter pool that we can in order to have democracy work with winners and losers forced to concede to their will.