Governor Tom Wolf and Republicans who control the state legislature had no idea that brokering a deal almost a year ago to substantially expand mail-in voting would be so important. There was absolutely no way to know at the time that COVID-19 would hit.
Because of the pandemic, Pennsylvania voters aggressively sought out the option to vote by mail this past spring primary, casting almost 1.5 million mail-in and absentee ballots in the primary. Voting in person will hopefully remain a safe and secure option in November, but it is likely that an even larger number of voters will use a mail-in ballot. Stated simply, mail voting was a reform that arrived right on time.
We should build on this success by seeking out other voting reforms that ought to be embraced in the age of the coronavirus.
A perfect example is Automatic Voter Registration. It’s a policy option that can increase the efficiency of our voter registration administration and has the potential to benefit public health efforts at the same time.
Here is how Automatic Voter Registration (often called AVR) works: Eligible Pennsylvania residents would automatically be registered to vote whenever they interact with a state government agency. For example, let us say that someone fills out a form to get their fishing license and submits it to the Fish and Boat Commission. The person getting their fishing license is then automatically registered to vote if they are eligible based on the information provided. Automatic Voter Registration creates a lot of government efficiencies, so has been growing in popularity around the country. Adopters include a bipartisan group of state and local governments.
There are 19 states that currently implement some form of AVR statewide, including Georgia, Michigan, Alaska, and West Virginia. AVR is popular because it is a secure and simple way for people to register to vote. The savings and efficiencies are obvious, but the positive public health consequences might be less visible.
To begin, Automatic Voter Registration decreases the amount of interaction that the public has to have with government in order to register to vote. That means fewer people visiting county offices to drop off voter registration forms. That means fewer physical interactions and opportunities to spread COVID-19. Ultimately, this easy reform builds social distancing into the voter registration process. It reduces the need for the public to interact in person with government employees. This is a really simple thing that we can do to reduce the spread.
Automatic voter registration also significantly decreases the need for voter registration campaigns in the fall. Civic organizations often go door-to-door to make sure that people are registered in every community. Political participation is important, so these activities are vital to continue even during an emergency. Obviously, going door-to-door is not ideal during a pandemic. Making the voter registration process more efficient makes these types of campaigns less necessary. People will already be registered to vote, so there is no need for big registration drives. This has the potential to help slow the spread of the virus.
Resources are going to be scarce in the coming few years due to a possible recession, especially when it comes to state government. We need to throw every dollar we have at combating the virus and the devastating economic impact. That is why the biggest benefit of implementing Automatic Voter Registration is the savings created by its efficiencies. We can spend those savings on public health efforts to combat the coronavirus, including the many efforts that have to be undertaken to ensure that our polling places are safe and healthy places for people to participate in our democracy.
Now is the time for Pennsylvania to adopt Automatic Voter Registration for every agency in state government. It will improve efficiency, save money, and help in the battle against the coronavirus.