WASHINGTON – The registration of new voters dropped dramatically in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic, challenging efforts of both major political parties to enlist new supporters in battleground states ahead of the 2020 election.

The number of new voters registered across 11 states in April 2020 decreased by 70% compared with April 2016, according to a report from the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research released Thursday.

Voter registration was well ahead of the 2016 pace in most states through February. It started to decline in March, when states began enforcing stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

By April, registration plummeted as the two most popular methods of signing up new voters – third-party at schools and other public venues and "motor voter registration" – virtually halted. The latter refers to a federal law that requires states to give individuals the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew a driver's license.

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"Other efforts to register voters are going to be more important than ever," said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.

"If we're completely opened up and no one is worried about the virus in September, we're probably going to be OK. But I don't know many people who are really banking on that. I think most public health experts think that we're going to need to be concerned about social distancing and large groups of people for a while."

States with at least a 50% voter registration reduction from April 2016 include the presidential swing states Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina as well as Georgia, which Democrats also hope to put in play for presumptive nominee Joe Biden. Texas, another state where Democrats believe they can continue to make inroads, and California plummeted by an ever greater 75%.

Voter registration in Illinois, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia each dropped by more than 50% as well.

"This is not something that's Democratic or Republican," Becker said. "Both sides rely on the months leading up to a presidential election to engage with potential new voters and get them registered and hopefully voting. And it's really hard to engage with a voter if you can't get them registered."

The Texas Tribune reported Engage Texas, a Republican super PAC focused on voter registration in the Lone Star State, shut down because of challenges brought on by the pandemic. The organization launched with $12.7 million in funding, but leaders said they determined the "best use of supporter and donor energies" is to close and phase out person-to-person voter registration.

MOVE Texas, which seeks to register new young voters, surpassed 2019 registration totals by more than 8,000 before the state's March 3 presidential primary according to Mother Jones magazine. 

Then the pandemic hit.

"We’ve gone from registering 2,000 people a week to registering maybe 100,” Drew Galloway, executive director of Move Texas, told Mother Jones. “Voter registration is decimated in Texas.”

The new report comes as voting-rights activists and Democrats, including Biden, have made vote-by-mail expansion a national rallying cry to prepare for the possibility of a presidential election in November during a pandemic. President Donald Trump has opposed these efforts.

Registering new voters during the pandemic has received less attention – even though vote-by-mail depends on voters being registered far in advance of the election. 

To boost registration, several of the states analyzed, including California, Georgia and Illinois, passed laws since 2016 to automatically register citizens to vote when they receive or renew their driver's licenses. But many states closed their departments of motor vehicles during the pandemic.

Among entities to help fill the registration gap, Becker pointed to the Electronic Registration Information Center, a non-profit that works with 30 states to update voter rolls and increase access to voter registration. ERIC plans to contact 20 million eligible voters who are not registered this election cycle and encourage them to sign up.

Data for the new study came directly from the states and includes only new voter registration activity, not already-registered individuals who updated addresses or other information.

Becker said it's too early to tell whether the registration numbers will improve in May, but he said he viewed one state's data and "it did not look good." The center intends to regularly update the report through November. 

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.