May 2, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Canvassing groups face unprecedented voter registration hurdles

Illustration of a campaign button cracked in many pieces.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Canvassers trying to register new voters are staring down unprecedented hostility and navigating a minefield of new laws ahead of November's election.

Why it matters: Many advocates say some state governments have made it harder to cast a ballot over the past few years amid rising public distrust of the election process.

  • The rematch between President Biden and former President Trump — along with control of the Senate — could hinge on a small number of votes, making turnout critical, especially in swing states.
  • "We need to be focused on making sure that every voice is heard, making sure that everyone has equal political power and can ensure that they are properly represented in government," says Natalie Roetzel Ossenfort, director of the Alliance for Justice's Bolder Advocacy program.

Zoom in: Several civic engagement nonprofits tell Axios they are facing high levels of harassment against canvassers and new laws that make it more cumbersome to register new voters.

  • Florida has cracked down on canvassers over where and when they can register new voters, often issuing fines against organizations, says Frankie Miranda, the Hispanic Federation's president and CEO.
  • Miranda, who says his canvassers have been harassed and assaulted, told Axios that the Hispanic Federation has new security protocols in place that require canvassers to work in pairs and wear colors that can't be associated with a political party.
  • "This is not a normal time. This is a new way of doing voter registration and civic engagement, and we are as an organization being nimble and flexible, because we cannot be outsmarted by those who want to make sure that our community cannot get to the polls," Miranda says.

State of play: In Florida, the Hispanic Federation and other groups last year sued against a new law that would increase fines for mistakes made on registration forms and ban noncitizens from registering new voters.

  • A federal judge in March ruled against the citizenship requirement, but the full case against the law went to trial last month and there is no ruling yet.

In Arizona — which Biden won by a thin margin in 2020 and where conspiracies about the election abound — many businesses are no longer allowing canvassers to stand outside their stores to register voters to avoid conflict, says Natali Fierros Bock, executive director of One Arizona, a coalition of 30 nonprofits that aims to register 150,000 new voters this year.

  • "This idea that people are working to steal elections has sown this level of mistrust in our state that when our people are out in the community, there's a new kind of validity that we have to create and build that didn't exist in the past," Fierros Bock says, adding that canvassers who are people of color face even more hostility when they're trying to register voters.

The other side: Advocates for stricter voting and voter registration laws say they are protecting the integrity of elections.

The big picture: Organizations are being forced to shift their strategies but say they aren't backing off efforts to register more voters.

  • Rebecca Pelham, executive director of Engage Miami, says that smaller organizations that did voter registration in Florida in the past have stopped because they don't have the resources and legal support.
  • "Those of us who are still doing this voter registration actually feel a huge responsibility and commitment to do it at scale and to really fill in the gaps."

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