Pennsylvanians will now be automatically registered to vote when they go to the DMV
Pennsylvania will join 23 other states that have implemented automatic voter registration as part of a national, bipartisan effort to increase voter engagement and turnout.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania will now automatically register eligible voters when they get a driver’s license or ID card, Gov. Josh Shapiro announced Tuesday.
Pennsylvania will join 23 other states that have implemented automatic voter registration as part of a national bipartisan effort to increase voter engagement and turnout — ahead of what’s expected to be a tumultuous and hotly contested 2024 presidential election.
”It’s rare to make a change this significant that improves voter access and election integrity at the same time,” Secretary of State Al Schmidt told The Inquirer in an interview Tuesday.
Automatic voter registration has been lauded by good-government advocates as a way to both register more voters and keep voter rolls up to date. However, research so far has been indeterminate on whether it increases voter turnout — and some election deniers were quick to falsely claim that the move would endanger the security of Pennsylvania’s elections.
Pennsylvanians have been able to opt in to registering to vote at the end of their ID registration or renewal at PennDot locations since 1993. Starting Tuesday, they need to actively opt out of registering to vote, as part of an effort by Shapiro’s administration to streamline government processes.
“Automatic voter registration is a commonsense step to ensure election security and save Pennsylvanians time and tax dollars,” Shapiro said in a news release. “Residents of our Commonwealth already provide proof of identity, residency, age, and citizenship at the DMV — all the information required to register to vote — so it makes good sense to streamline that process with voter registration.”
Local election officials will now get automatic updates when a voter changes their name or address at a PennDot location, thus improving the accuracy of the state’s voter rolls. Counties will also be able to process new voter registrations or address changes much faster than paper applications.
Does automatic registration increase turnout?
Other states with automatic voter registration include West Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey. These states have increased the number of registered voters, but there is little evidence that it increases the number of people who vote in an election, according to a 2021 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. On the contrary, the study shows a decrease in voter turnout because the share of registered voters who cast ballots dropped.
Currently, there are 8.7 million Pennsylvanians registered to vote. The Shapiro administration estimates there are 10.3 million Pennsylvania residents who are eligible to vote and could now join the voter rolls as a result of this policy change.
Voter rolls have been the target of some Pennsylvania election deniers, after former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that there were more votes cast there were registered voters in the 2020 presidential election.
Shapiro’s announcement Tuesday reignited attacks on the state’s election system. Stephen Miller, a former senior adviser to Trump, falsely claimed Tuesday on X that Pennsylvania voters would not be required to sign a sworn declaration that they are eligible to vote. The Shapiro administration quickly rejected that statement.
The history of automatic voter registration in Pa.
Democrats in the General Assembly have long tried to pass automatic voter registration to increase the number of registered voters. Those proposals often died in committee before getting a vote in the legislature, where for many years Republicans controlled both chambers until Democrats flipped the House this year.
“This improvement in Pennsylvania’s voting system is a tremendous step forward and a testament to every civil and voting rights leader who has marched, raised their voice, and fought for a system that includes all Americans, including Black and brown individuals or those who may feel intimidated to get involved,” said Sen. Vince Hughes (D., Philadelphia), who has introduced legislation for automatic voter registration for several years.
While Democrats celebrated Shapiro’s actions, Republican leaders criticized him for acting unilaterally and without the input of the General Assembly — a common criticism of his predecessor and fellow Democrat, Gov. Tom Wolf.
“The governor is following the sad and misguided precedent set by his predecessor that recognizes our election laws need updating and modernized, but then disenfranchises the General Assembly from exercising its constitutional prerogative to make laws,” said House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) in a statement.
“Unfortunately, this move by the governor generates more questions than answers and creates uncertainty for Pennsylvania voters,” three top Senate Republicans said in a joint statement.
Neither Senate nor House Republicans said whether they would pursue court action to stop the policy from taking effect.
A spokesperson for Shapiro said the governor has the power to make the change himself because it is a policy change at one of the agencies that the governor oversees.
Schmidt said the 1993 law that allowed for the creation of motor voter registration also gives the state the authority to implement automatic voter registration. Most of the states with automatic voter registration created it through legislation, while a handful, such as Georgia, took executive action to implement it.
Filtering out ineligible voters
Pennsylvania has had issues in recent years with its voter registration processes at DMV locations. In 2019, Wolf’s administration admitted that more than 11,000 noncitizens — who live in the state legally but are not eligible to vote — were able to register to vote.
Schmidt, then a longtime Philadelphia Republican commissioner overseeing elections, was the main voice in Pennsylvania pushing for changes to the state’s motor voter registration process to prevent noncitizens from getting onto the voter rolls. The Department of State said it fixed the issue in 2017.
Schmidt said he’s confident that the system is fixed to ensure that those ineligible to vote will be internally flagged and will not be offered the voter registration screens.
For example, Schmidt said he is taking his daughter for her driver’s license test soon. Since she’s under 18, she will not see the voter registration screens that eligible voters do.
“People ineligible will not interface with this system,” Schmidt said.
By the end of the day Tuesday, Shapiro had claimed the policy change as a political win. He released a fundraising message about automatic voter registration and asked his supporters to “chip in a few dollars today to continue the fight for our democracy.”