When it comes to registered voters, the Democrat Party has taken a massive lead over the Republican Party, but does it really matter?

(Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP)

This is not the best of times for the Democratic Party. No White House; no Senate; no House of Representatives; and a clear minority of governorships and state legislatures in their possession. Yet the Democrats approach this fall’s midterm elections with an advantage in one key aspect of the political process — their strength in states where voters register by party.

According to the Washington Examiner, Democrats hold a massive voter lead in states that require party registration, a gap of 12 million that could be key to whether the party takes control of the House and Senate in the fall midterm congressional elections, according to a new analysis.

Overall, 40 percent of voters in 31 party registration states are Democrats, 29 percent are Republicans, and 28 percent are independents, according to a new report of July numbers from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The states include several with key battles over House seats such as California, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Still, Republican Donald Trump found a route to victory in 2016 that went through the party registration states. He scored a near sweep of those where there were more Republicans than Democrats, winning 11 of the 12, while also taking six of the 19 states where there were more Democrats than Republicans — a group that included the pivotal battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Center For Politics reports

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In the swing state of Virginia, Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order in April 2016, that immediately gave some 200,000 felons the right to vote.

When Republicans in Virginia’s state legislature revolted at that executive order and won an August 2016 Virginia Supreme Court decision blocking restorations en masse, McAuliffe took another route, with his office reviewing thousands of felons’ records and the governor restoring their rights individually using an autopen. According to the Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, 172,298 people have had their rights restored, with even more in the last week of the governor’s term.

As Democrats push for same-day voter registration in several states, Republicans voice concern that registering voters on the same-day as the election is an invitation for voter fraud.

More than 6,500 people registered to vote in New Hampshire on Nov. 8, 2016, using out-of-state driver’s licenses, and since then the vast majority have neither obtained an in-state license nor registered a motor vehicle.

Conservatives say the state’s same-day registration is an invitation for fraud because of loose proof-of-residence rules.

Several new states are now allowing same-day registration for voters:

In Delaware, the state House has approved legislation allowing early voting and same-day registration in Delaware.

The bills cleared the Democrat-led House on Thursday with no Republican support. They now go to the Senate, also controlled by Democrats.

As of 2017, California residents are also able to register to vote on election day.

The NVRA (National Voter Registration Act) passed Congress in 1992, but President George H. W. Bush vetoed it. Congress passed it again a year later, and this time President Bill Clinton signed it into law, calling it “a sign of a new vibrancy in our democracy.” The “motor voter” law, as it became known, was an immediate success. In its first year in effect, more than 30 million peopleregistered or updated their registrations through the NVRA. Roughly 16 million people per year have used it to register ever since.

According to the Washington Monthly, Republicans shouldn’t be overly concerned about the 12 million newly registered Democrat voters.

Numerous studies have tried to measure the effect of the NVRA on turnout. Few have found any clear impact. That doesn’t mean there has been none; turnout declines might have been worse without the NVRA, and in any event data limitations make it hard to prove causal connections. But based on the evidence so far, the law seems mostly to have added to the substantial pool of citizens who are registered but don’t bother to vote.

This fact has not dimmed enthusiasm for voter registration among funders, activists, and operatives on the left. A few weeks before the 2016 elections TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, released a report showing that fifty million more Americans were registered to vote than eight years earlier, a whopping 33 percent increase during the presidency of organizer in chief Barack Obama, himself a big proponent of voter registration. The data showed that the newest voters leaned heavily Democratic.

It goes without saying that these new voters didn’t show up in sufficient numbers, or in the right places, to give Hillary Clinton a victory. In fact, an analysis recently published in the New York Times found that some four million voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 simply failed to vote at all in 2016. What doomed Clinton was not a lack of registered voters, but a lack of turnout.

Nevertheless, since 2016, electoral reform advocacy groups doubled down on voter registration efforts. To their credit, the two main fixes being pushed are important ones. Election-day registration allows citizens to register or update their information when they show up at the polling place, and automatic voter registration makes state governments, not individuals, responsible for registering voters. Both reforms solve lingering flaws in the registration process and have been shown by studies to lift turnout.

But if the chief goal is helping the Democrats win, then concentrating on unregistered voters makes little sense. Consider the arithmetic. There are approximately fifty million Americans who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered. But there are far more “episodic voters”—citizens who are registered but often don’t show up. More than 100 million registered voters didn’t cast ballots in the 2014 midterms. About 145 million didn’t vote in the primaries.

These episodic voters are not only far more numerous than unregistered voters, they are also much likelier to change their behavior. It turns out that a great deal of the remaining unregistered voters are that way by choice. A 2016 Pew survey asked people to explain why they don’t vote. Compared to those who were registered-but-infrequent voters, unregistered voters were nearly twice as likely to say that they dislike politics and don’t believe voting makes a difference. Registered-but-infrequent voters, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely to say that they don’t vote because they are not informed enough about the issues or candidates to make a good decision. If you were designing a system to maximize the Democrats’ electoral chances, you’d want it to be primarily focused on educating and mobilizing these episodic voters.

But that is the opposite of the system we have. Unlike with unregistered voters, few liberal-leaning advocacy groups make it their mission to target episodic voters. That task is mostly left to individual campaigns and to Democratic Party organizations. But the primary goal of these enterprises is to win the next election. To do that, they concentrate their limited time and resources—internal polling, direct mail, campaign appearances, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts—on persuading more likely voters to turn out. Only when races are especially tight and campaign funds are in great abundance do campaigns seriously reach out to episodic, or unlikely, voters, and those occasions are relatively rare.

Episodic voters are the orphans of American politics, ignored and unloved. But they are also the lost continent of American politics, just waiting to be developed.


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