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Pennsylvania latest state to embrace automatic voter registration

As Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro embraces automatic voter registration, the policy has now reached 24 states, plus the District of Columbia.


In Pennsylvania’s closely watched gubernatorial race last year, Republican nominee Doug Mastriano had some rather unusual ideas about how to administer elections. As the far-right state senator argued, what officials needed to do was purge the state’s voter rolls entirely and force Pennsylvanians to re-register to vote.

It was never altogether clear why the GOP candidate wanted to do this — it had something to do with election conspiracy theories — and his vision did not prove persuasive: Mastriano lost the 2022 race by nearly 15 points.

The man who defeated him has a very different approach to how a democracy should function, which we were reminded of anew yesterday. NBC News reported:

Eligible voters getting a new driver’s license or ID card in Pennsylvania will now be automatically registered to vote, Commonwealth officials said. Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, announced the change Tuesday, touting it as good for democracy.

“Automatic voter registration is a commonsense step to ensure election security and save Pennsylvanians time and tax dollars,” Shapiro said in a statement. “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,” he added.

My friend Greg Sargent at The Washington Post was the first to report on Shapiro’s new policy.

Revisiting our earlier coverage, it wasn’t long ago when automatic voter registration was a familiar policy in many advanced democracies, but not in the United States. Slowly but surely, however, the idea is gaining traction on American soil.

In fact, according to the tally from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Pennsylvania is the 24th state, plus the District of Columbia, to adopt AVR.

Not bad for a policy that didn’t exist in any state as recently as eight years ago.

I’ve long believed this is a policy that’s tough to argue against. When it comes to registering to vote in the United States, the burden has traditionally been on the individual: If you’re eligible to vote, it’s up to you to take the proactive steps needed to register. Automatic voter registration flips that model.

The idea is exactly what it sounds like: Under the policy, states automatically register eligible voters who interact with state agencies, shifting the burden away from the individual. Those who want to withdraw from the system can do so voluntarily without penalty, but otherwise, Americans in these states are simply added to the voters rolls as a matter of course.

As of today, it’s reached nearly half of the nation’s states. The holdouts tend to be Republican strongholds, led by GOP officials who are generally reluctant to open up the electoral process, but AVR advocates continue to make progress in ways that were tough to predict in the recent past.

Postscript: At the federal level, it’s worth noting that automatic voter registration was a key element of the Democrats’ “For the People Act,” which Republicans derailed in the last Congress. When that bill failed, Democrats tried again with a more narrowly tailored “Freedom to Vote Act,” which also included automatic voter registration, and which GOP senators also used a filibuster to defeat.

This post updates our related earlier coverage.