Ellen Ortt, 81, looks through old voter registration files at the Voter Registration office in the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown, PA., on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. Ortt is looking to see which files need to be update with a new address or a party switch.
Sam Dunklau is the Capitol Bureau Chief for WITF. He previously covered Illinois state government for NPR member station WUIS in Springfield, IL.
Since 2015, Sam has been floating around the radio airwaves as a reporter, disc jockey, and station manager. He grew up in the small midwestern town of Paw Paw, Illinois and is a proud graduate of Augustana College.
So far this year, Democrats have taken in about 6,300 former GOP voters, while more than 9,000 other Republicans jumped ship to a third party or became independents. Republicans did gain about 5,000 voters — not enough to offset the migration.
That looks like a shift. But the analysis by Berwood Yost, the director of F&M’s Center for Opinion Research, shows the change is in line with what normally happens from year to year.
“There’s a natural kind of ebb and flow in party registration patterns, and any party switching that we’re seeing right now is sort of overwhelmed by the usual switches that we see in party registration,” he said.
In fact, Pennsylvania Department of State data shows over the last four presidential cycles, tens of thousands more voters have switched from Democratic or other party affiliations to the GOP. Currently, there are 600,000 more registered Democratic voters than Republicans, but their advantage has been cut in half since November of 2008. That’s when the party’s advantage over Republicans was 1.2 million.
Yost said the trend kept up even in 2020, meaning GOP candidates could remain viable in the upcoming races for governor and U.S. Senate in two years, despite more registered Democrats statewide. Both contests are expected to be closely-watched and fiercely competitive.
“I think the longer-term question is, as the partisanship narrows, will that mean a better advantage for Republican candidates statewide? This is an important question because it has consequences for who’s going to win votes statewide,” he said.
Jezree Friend, who is among Erie County’s representatives to the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania, said registration advantages don’t always equal blowout victories for the party benefiting from them.
“Ratio wise that was very close to the successes Biden had across the state.” Friend said. “[Though there was] a higher registration advantage for the Democrats, which helped them win, proportionally it was not in line with the registrations.”
Overall registrations have declined since Election Day, something Yost said is not unusual after presidential contests. As of last week, the Department of State showed about 278,000 fewer voters on the commonwealth’s rolls than on Nov. 3.
Most of that dropoff is due to counties purging inactive voters, defined as anyone who hasn’t voted in two federal election cycles. While the housekeeping is a regular part of county election office duties, the process can take as long as eight years to complete.
Yost said it’s too soon to tell whether events like the Capitol insurrection had a long-term effect on voter registrations. But for now, he said, the changes we are seeing aren’t likely to shift 2022’s key races.
“If there are Republican defections, it’s going to benefit the Democratic party. But if we see this continued trend that we’ve seen since 2000, I think we’re in for very competitive statewide races,” he said.
Reporter Emily Previti contributed reporting to this story.