Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. Sign up for our free newsletters here.
Pennsylvania will now automatically lead residents through the process to register to vote when they interact with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Gov. Josh Shapiro announced Tuesday.
Under the new system, which goes into effect today, residents obtaining new or renewed driver’s licenses and ID cards will respond to questions to complete or update their voter registration unless they opt out.
Previously, residents were asked if they wanted to fill out a voter registration form or update their existing voter registration, which is known as an “opt in” system.
Now, forms on PennDOT’s website say “this application will also serve as a request to update your voter registration unless you check this box” and that voter registration material will automatically be mailed to unregistered voters. An application for an identification card obtained by Votebeat and Spotlight PA at a Lancaster County PennDOT center Tuesday contained the same language.
Prompts on terminals at PennDOT centers will now also take users through the registration, unless they opt out.
Interacting with the Department of Motor Vehicles is the most common way voters register across the nation. According to a 2022 survey of election administrators from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that 55% of all registration applications came from motor vehicle agencies. In Pennsylvania, that figure was 60.5%.
As of 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, there were roughly 9.1 million licensed drivers in the state, but only 8.7 million registered voters. Legal permanent residents, who are not citizens, and those not old enough to vote can also obtain driver licenses.
Shapiro, a Democrat, issued a statement calling automatic voter registration “a commonsense step to ensure election security and save Pennsylvanians time and tax dollars.”
The governor noted that residents interacting with the DMV already provide proof of identity, residency, age and citizenship. Shapiro said the new system would lend itself to more accurate voter rolls by more quickly capturing voters’ changes in names or addresses. Other states that have recently converted to similar models have seen the type of improvement Shapiro describes as well as increased registration rates, research shows.
Tammy Patrick, CEO for programs at the National Association of Election Officials, said Pennsylvania should expect similar results as long as it has ensured communications between the two agencies — PennDOT and the Department of State — are secure and efficient. When those steps have been taken, states that have previously made the switch have found it better serves voters, she said.
“Any time local government can come up with more effective ways to serve our communities, I think it’s good to do so,” she said.
In 1993 Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the “Motor Voter Act,” which required state Departments of Motor Vehicles to provide citizens with the option to register to vote when interacting with the agency.
Some states have taken that mandate a step further and applied what is known as “automatic voter registration.” According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that typically is done in one of two ways: on the front end, where voters need to opt out of being registered when interacting with the agency, or on the back end, where voters are notified after interacting with the agency that they are being automatically registered unless they take action to opt out.
Pennsylvania’s new system is most akin to the front-end system: The registration is automatic and takes the onus off of the voter, but is not instantaneous like in some states.
Pennsylvania joins 23 other states and Washington, D.C., which already use some form of automatic voter registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty of the states with automatic voter registration implemented it through legislation or by having voters approve the change.
Three states — Colorado, Connecticut, and Georgia — enacted automatic voter registration through an action by the secretary of state or Department of Motor Vehicles, similar to the Shapiro administration’s move today.
State Senate and House Republicans were quick to point out that the change was undertaken without legislative input. Much of the state, including legislators and county officials, was taken by surprise by Tuesday’s announcement, which was quietly released to many media outlets on short notice Monday night.
“The problem here is not necessarily the end, but the means,” House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said. Cutler said the governor “recognizes our election laws need updating…but then disenfranchises the General Assembly from exercising its constitutional prerogative to make laws.”
In a joint statement, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland), Senate Republican Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana), and Senate State Government Committee Chair Cris Dush (R., Jefferson) said Shapiro’s announcement was a “unilateral decision made by the Executive Branch and without input by the General Assembly.”
A source close to Senate Republican leadership said they were caught off guard by the announcement, and that moves like this make it all the more difficult to work with Shapiro. Earlier in the summer, Shapiro announced he would line-item veto a school choice provision in the state budget, surprising Republicans who thought they had a deal. This seems like more of the same, the source said.
A spokesperson for Shapiro said that since the change is a procedural one and because the governor oversees the department, he has the authority to direct that change.
The switch to automatic voter registration comes ahead of what is expected to be another contentious presidential election cycle in 2024, when turnout is expected to be high and Pennsylvania’s 19 electoral votes will again be a highly sought after prize. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat running for reelection, is a high-profile Republican target as they aim to take back the upper chamber.
Problems with PennDOT
Local administrators tell Votebeat they are, in the long term, excited about the change. In the short term, though, they fear it will exacerbate existing issues with PennDOT’s system.
When a person registers to vote through PennDOT, that information is first given to the Department of State then to county election officials for final processing. Because registrations do not automatically get entered into the voter rolls, Tuesday’s change will result in more applications for counties to process.
Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the association does support the ability of every Pennsylvanian “to have an active stake in the voting process,” but “we would have appreciated an opportunity to have a conversation with the administration before this was announced.”
“Before using that system for additional purposes, it would have been nice to have a conversation and work through these things,” she said.
Counties have long received new voter registration applications and applications to update voter registrations from PennDOT, but clerks say the system is imperfect. Specifically, if the resident is mistaken about their current registration status, PennDOT’s current system does not provide clerks with the information they need, including the resident’s signature, to register that person as a new voter. Columbia County Election Director Matthew Repasky said counties have not received guidance on whether this issue has been, or will be, resolved, given Shapiro’s announcement.
Applications for residents on the border of two counties are sometimes sent to the wrong county, Repasky added, though this is generally easy to fix. Overall, Repasky thinks the change will be manageable since counties are already working with PennDOT.
“I think it has the potential to lead to more accurate voter rolls in the long run, because there will be more interactions with PennDOT,” Lycoming County Election Director Forrest Lehman said. But he added that it will exacerbate existing issues like the signature problem. He thinks the PennDOT computers’ user interface also can lead to voters accidentally registering as not affiliated with any political party.
Put simply, “it’s clunky,” Lehman said of the current system.
Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org.