As President Donald Trump's poll numbers suffer across the country and in Wisconsin — a state critical to his reelection bid — the latest voter registration figures in the state are offering him a small reason for optimism.
According to a review of Wisconsin voter registration data from July, the number of registered voters in the counties Trump won in 2016 has declined by a smaller amount than in the counties that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won.
The numbers come as reports have found that while the rate of new voter registrations has declined nationally during the pandemic, people that are registering have tended to be in demographic groups favoring Republicans. Registrations are important since typically, registered voters are more likely to cast a ballot. Unlike many other states, Wisconsinites can register and cast a ballot in person on Election Day, but this year, doing so may be complicated amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Wisconsin, registrations don't show party affiliation, making a direct comparison of Democratic and Republican registered voters difficult. Polling has improved for Democrats, with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden supported by 49% and Trump by 41% of respondents in the latest Marquette Law School Poll.
But despite Trump's standing in polls, voter registrations in the counties won by Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election show Democrats may have some work to do.
In the 60 counties Trump won in 2016, the total number of registered voters declined by 2.35%, or 35,395 voters, between July 2016 and July 2020. But in the 12 counties Clinton won, the number declined by a larger 4.51% during the same period, a decline of 56,590 voters, even though there are almost a million fewer registered voters in those counties.
"Trump is in trouble in Wisconsin and nationally, that's what the polls are showing," said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. "But the fact that the registration is more balanced than that should give Republicans hope and should encourage the Democrats to keep working to get their voters on the registration rolls."
Burden said the figures aren't all that surprising, since people in more Democratic areas tend to move around more frequently than Republican populations.
Much of the nearly 92,000 net decline in registrations can be attributed to actions the Wisconsin Elections Commission has taken to remove inactive voters and voters suspected of moving from the rolls. Since December 2016, shortly after that year's presidential election, the number of registered voters in the state stood at more than 3.7 million. That figure precipitously declined to just over 3 million in February 2018, before ticking up ahead of that year's gubernatorial race.
More voters suspected of moving could be purged from the rolls this year; however, it's unlikely given the state Supreme Court has signaled it won't rule on whether a voter purge sought by Republicans can proceed until after the November election.
Between November 2019 and July 2020, registrations in the Trump counties have increased by 3.02%, while those in the Clinton counties ticked up by a slightly higher rate, at 3.2%. Those rates are both down from 2016, when over the same time period, Trump counties saw an increase in net registrations of 3.24% while the Clinton counties saw a net increase of 4.24%. Those declines in registrations could be partially due to the pandemic, which has upended election patterns in the state.
In total, the number of registered voters in July 2020 in the counties that Trump won stood at 2,181,278 voters, down from 2,216,673 in July 2016. In the Clinton counties, the total stood at 1,225,674 registered voters in July of 2020, a drop from 1,282,264 voters in July of 2016.
Of course, those numbers only show the total registrations in the counties won by each candidate. Within each county, there are both Democratic and Republican voters, so it's also possible more Democrats are registering in counties Trump won or vice versa.
Still, in counties that drive big Democratic margins, such as Dane and Milwaukee, registration rates are still down from 2016. Milwaukee County saw a net registered voter decrease of 38,459 between July 2016 and this July, a 5.33% decrease. Dane County saw a smaller decrease of 4,192 voters over the same time frame, representing a 4.28% decrease.
In Republican-dominated Washington County net registrations actually increased by 133.
All those slight differences can matter in a state that Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes.
A close race
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said the party is increasingly focused on upping voter registrations in the state, because people registered to vote are more likely to submit ballots. He said gone are the days when higher turnout in Wisconsin always favored the Democrats.
As for the latest registration figures, Jefferson said more than anything the numbers confirm the margin between Trump and Biden in Wisconsin will be close.
"I think it just shows what we already know, that Wisconsin's going to be very competitive and it's going to be very close," Jefferson said. "The work isn't done until the polls close on Election Day."
Jefferson said the party is working to prompt voters to register through digital and mail methods as well as some in-person registrations.
Philip Shulman, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said the electoral atmosphere in the state, reflected by liberal-backed Supreme Court candidate Jill Karofsky's more than 10-point win in April, indicates Democrats will secure Wisconsin in November. Shulman said Democrats will continue building upon their efforts to ensure success in November.
"Wisconsin Democrats have proven that we know how to organize and we know how to get people to vote even in the midst of a COVID pandemic," Shulman said.
Challenges for registration
Debra Cronmiller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters, said registering voters has been more difficult during the pandemic, and that her organization is investing in more social media outreach and paid advertising to reach voters than it otherwise would. The organization is also increasingly reaching out to registered voters who haven't voted in a while.
In normal years, the group would more typically reach out to voters in person.
The group is also working to reach out to unregistered voters via postcard, as the Wisconsin Elections Commission is doing this year.
"As I sit here, I sure hope all this works, but because we've never done it before, we've never had to do it before, I just don't know," Cronmiller said.
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