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George Floyd Protests Lead To Push To Register New Voters

NOEL KING, HOST:

The pandemic is keeping people at home, and that means voter registration has taken a hit. But the anti-police brutality and anti-racism protests of the past two weeks have led to a push to bring in new voters. Ben Paviour from member station VPM brought us this from Richmond.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: All last week, Jovanni Armstead joined Richmond's protests. She was mad about police violence and gentrification in her neighborhood.

JOVANNI ARMSTEAD: And people are asking, what next? And I say, what next? We have to make sure people are registered to vote.

PAVIOUR: Armstead has her work cut out for her. New voter registrations in Virginia sunk to around 8,000 in May, less than a third of what they were in February, before the virus forced people home. Armstead says voting sends a message to politicians.

ARMSTEAD: You're either going to do the job that we hired you to do, or we're going to boot you out.

PAVIOUR: She registers five voters in her first half hour. Then a white man who says he lives nearby comes over to talk about the protests. He won't give his name. He's worried about being branded a racist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's been a tremendous amount of progress made in the last 50 years.

ARMSTEAD: Oh, man - for you.

PAVIOUR: The man asks Armstead to justify the protests - their noise, their goals, their tactics.

ARMSTEAD: Have you ever had a soda bottle, and they shake that thing and shake that thing, and after a while, when you try to take that top off, and it explodes? That's the looting. That's the protesting. That's where we are right now.

PAVIOUR: Organizers across the country are attempting to channel that energy into registering the young, diverse protesters.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: These voters represent a tsunami of young voters that are coming of age.

PAVIOUR: Maria Teresa Kumar is CEO of Voto Latino. Her group registered more than 40,000 people in the first week of June, double its goal for the entire month. They've done it using online ads, including ones that use imagery and language from the protests. Her new goal is to register 700,000 people by Election Day.

KUMAR: Because we're literally talking about 15 million unregistered Latinos. And of those 15 million unregistered, 10 million of them are in our wheelhouse, are young people, and they're online. And we know where to find them.

PAVIOUR: Still, most voter registration happens at government offices, like the DMV. With those buildings closed, some states have actually seen a decline in the number of people on their voter rolls. Myrna Perez is with the Brennan Center for Justice. She says without the pandemic, there would've been plans for...

MYRNA PEREZ: Enterprising young people in brightly colored T-shirts to be going to festivals and knocking on doors.

PAVIOUR: With that off the table for now, Perez says groups should consider old-school techniques like mailers and phone trees.

PEREZ: We do not want our democracy to be a closed loop. We do not want the only people participating to be those that have been already participating.

PAVIOUR: That means registering people like Shay Martin who are skeptical about voting.

SHAY MARTIN: I've tried voting for third parties for a few years. And then I realized that the two major parties are just too dominant.

PAVIOUR: Martin says she became disenchanted with presidential politics.

MARTIN: But I'm trying to revitalize my desire to vote locally and see if that's something that will help.

PAVIOUR: There are early signs that politicians are listening. Here in Richmond, the mayor and city council now unanimously support removing three Confederate monuments in the city, a move that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago. The reelection this November may hinge on what they do next. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.