There was a time when the election was supposed to be the big story of 2020.

With all that attention and energy, voter registration numbers would go through the roof. Parties, campaigns, and advocacy groups planned to knock on a record number of doors; host events across Pennsylvania and other swing states; set up tables in high-traffic areas, such as college student centers; and build networks of field volunteers to help sign up as many people as possible before November.

“We were on campuses every single day for eight hours a day, asking every single person who walked past us, ‘Are you registered to vote at your current address?‘’ said Larissa Sweitzer, Pennsylvania director for NextGen America, a progressive super PAC focused on youth registration and turnout. “And then the pandemic hit.”

Colleges shut down, events were canceled, and high-traffic areas went quiet. PennDOT closed its offices, meaning no more registering there. Stay-at-home orders meant no knocking on doors — who would even open the door? — and no in-person voter registration events.

The impact is clear: Voter registrations increased more slowly than expected. They usually jump sharply before a presidential primary.

Between the November 2015 election and the 2016 primary, Pennsylvania’s voter rolls grew by a net 200,528 voters, or 2.5%. This time — even with the delayed primary adding more than a month to get registered — the electorate grew by only 68,311 voters, or 0.8%.

Democratic registrations increased by 32,800 voters before this primary, compared with 89,100 in 2015; Republicans grew their rolls by 45,000, compared with 145,700 in the last election cycle.

Those numbers reflect the net change, including registrations that are canceled when voters die or move out of state, or when county elections officials perform routine list maintenance to remove inactive or ineligible voters.

Campaigns and parties spend a lot of time and energy registering voters, and keeping a close eye on the numbers, because they’re key to growing their base and — they hope — increasing voter turnout in November. And because Pennsylvania does not allow same-day voter registration, people must be signed up 15 days in advance to be eligible to vote in November.

“The reason you go out to register people in your party is because they become part of your major support network,” said Lawrence Tabas, chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.

New registrants are likely to vote in upcoming elections, and Tabas said they are often more likely to become active as volunteers, to donate to the party or campaigns, to join county parties, or even to run for office in the future: “They are more than just a voter in November.”

Pennsylvania’s numbers fit a national trend of a dramatic drop in voter registration as the pandemic shut down everyday life, said David J. Becker, head of the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington.

Comparing new registrations for 2020 and 2016 in 12 states and Washington, D.C., the group found that new voter registrations in January 2020 were even higher than at the same point in 2016, potentially a sign of high political energy this year. Then the numbers plummeted.

“I’ve been looking at voter registration data longer than I care to admit — I mean, I’ve been looking at really granular registration data for probably the last two decades — and I don’t ever remember seeing anything like this,” Becker said.

Normally, voter registration activity follows a fairly predictable cycle: Steady pace, with small spikes before elections, and then major spikes in presidential years.

Some people will still end up registering, such as when signing up for a driver’s license.

But others might stay lost. For example, a college student who would have signed up at a table on the quad might simply not be reached in the next few months and forget.

Community College of Philadelphia student Eh Ser Ser Moo, left, gets help from Aminah Sinns, right, from the Campus Elections Engagement Project, as she registers to vote online during the voter registration drive on campus on September 24, 2019.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Community College of Philadelphia student Eh Ser Ser Moo, left, gets help from Aminah Sinns, right, from the Campus Elections Engagement Project, as she registers to vote online during the voter registration drive on campus on September 24, 2019.

That means parties, campaigns, and activists will have their work cut out for them to make up some of the numbers lost over the spring and early summer.

But the pandemic is ongoing. It has accelerated a shift toward digital organizing that has challenged groups used to personal contact to mobilize voters.

“Digital is going to be king for us,” said Andres Anzola, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “We’re not going to throw our hands up and say, ‘Well, tough.’ No. We’re going to continue to work.”

What exactly that looks like is still being figured out, he said.

For NextGen, early attempts at simply posting things on social media and hoping they’d take off often fell flat.

“One in a million Tik Toks can go viral, but yours can get 30 views,” Sweitzer said. Social media was “something we thought was going to be the solution to online organizing … but we’ve hit a roadblock for sure.”

The group turned instead to “relational organizing,” having volunteers focus on reaching people they know. That’s been more effective, Sweitzer said, and allows a kind of exponential network effect.

The next challenge, she said, is figuring out what to do about the start of the college semester in the fall, traditionally a major time for voter registration.

“Just because you might not be going back to regular learning does not mean that Nov. 3 isn’t going to happen,” Sweitzer said. “How can we get connected … just like we would if we were to table outside a dorm that students were moving into?”