Democrats’ voter registration edge shrinks in key states
Democrats are confronting narrowing voter registration advantages in key battleground states ahead of next year’s midterm elections, stirring concern among some party members of a coming Republican wave in 2022.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats now lead Republicans in voter registration by about 632,000 people, down from 813,885 two years ago. The same is true in another battleground state, North Carolina, where Democrats’ advantage has shrunk by more than 140,000 since October 2019. There are fewer active registered Democrats on the books in North Carolina now than there were six years ago.
The situation is most dire for Democrats in Florida, the nation’s largest and most volatile swing state. The party has long held a yawning voter registration advantage over Republicans, but it has shrunk by more than 200,000 over the past two years. The latest numbers from the Florida Division of Elections show the GOP trailing the Democrats by fewer than 24,000 registered voters.
There are still some silver linings for Democrats. Emerging battlegrounds like Arizona have become more evenly split among voters in recent years, though Democrats still lag Republicans in voter registration in the Grand Canyon State. But early polling shows Republicans with an enthusiasm advantage heading into 2022, when the GOP will look to recapture its lost majorities in Congress.
“Obviously it’s concerning,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida. “There are alarm bells ringing and I think the party and different groups are taking notice and trying to fill in the gaps.”
Kennedy said that “a confluence of factors” are to blame for the narrowing voter registration numbers in Florida and elsewhere. For one, election officials periodically clean up voter lists by removing inactive or deceased voters, as well as those who may have moved out of a voter registration agency’s jurisdiction.
But Kennedy also noted that Republicans have invested heavily in voter registration efforts, noting that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pumped roughly $2 million into the state GOP’s voter registration efforts.
“I do think that the Republicans have put a lot of emphasis on voter registration,” he said. “For Democrats, there hasn’t been a robust voter registration operation like there needs to be in Florida since the Obama era. There’s this emphasis on third-party groups and nonprofits filling in that gap.”
Voter registration isn’t a predictor of an election’s results. In Florida, for instance, Republicans have managed to eke out narrow wins in hotly contested races for years, despite being outnumbered by registered Democrats.
But there are still a number of structural challenges that underscore the dilemma for Democrats.
For one, Republican voters tend to turn out at a higher rate than their Democratic counterparts. At the same time, restrictive new voting laws pushed by GOP-controlled legislatures in states like Florida, Georgia and Arizona have unnerved Democrats, who fear that the voting measures could have an adverse effect on their turnout next year.
There are other reasons for Democrats to worry as well. The party of a new president typically loses seats in the midterm elections, and President Biden has seen his approval rating slip in recent weeks amid a summer surge in COVID-19 infections and the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Republicans also hold the edge in redistricting, given that the GOP controls the legislatures in states like Florida, Texas and North Carolina, all three of which will add seats to their congressional delegations next year.
What’s more, there are signs that enthusiasm is building among Republican voters ahead of 2022.
A Morning Consult-Politico poll released last month showed Republicans overtaking Democrats in midterm enthusiasm. In that survey, 58 percent of GOP voters said they were either “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about voting last year — a 10-point uptick since July. Fifty-four percent of Democratic voters said the same.
In a tacit acknowledgment that history is most likely on the GOP’s side in 2022, Democrats are racing to bolster their voter registration numbers. Last week, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) launched a $5 million voter registration drive, mainly targeting communities of color. That effort will focus on battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
State Democratic parties in places like Texas, another emerging battleground, are also pushing forward with their own voter registration programs, hoping to replicate the success of similar efforts to Georgia, a longtime Republican stronghold where Democrats won major gains in 2020.
“Voter registration is immensely important, but it’s not the end-all be-all,” one national Democratic strategist said. “That being said, I think with a lot of these new voter restrictions, with the political landscape in 2022 being what it is, it’d be smart for us to try to pad out voter registration as much as possible, because part of this is a numbers game.”
“You’ve got to have a counterweight, and signing more Democrats up to vote is part of that,” the strategist added.
Kennedy, the Florida DNC member, said that while he’s not entirely optimistic about 2022, he’s “feeling better” about where Democrats stand, pointing to new voter registration efforts and the “boogeymen” — DeSantis and former President Trump, among them — looming over the GOP.
“I don’t really like predicting elections, but we do live in strange times and generally the party in power doesn’t do well, historically speaking,” Kennedy said. “But, you know, do have a lot of boogeymen to energize the base.”