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Will Automatic Voter Registration Boost Turnout or Security Concerns?

The recent decision to move forward with automatic voter registration plans in Pennsylvania has some Republicans worried about how the policy will be implemented across county election departments.

(TNS) — Pennsylvania became the 24th state to enact automatic voter registration when Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro announced the new policy Tuesday.

When state residents obtain or renew their driver's license or ID cards, they automatically are registered to vote, unless they choose to opt out of the process on their driver license or ID form. It's a flip from the previous policy that asked people if they wanted to opt into registering to vote as they filled out their paperwork.

The executive action by Shapiro was praised by voters' rights groups and others, but some Republicans criticized the process in which the policy change was made and said they are concerned implementation would be difficult for county election departments.

Christina Hartman, advisory board chair of the nonpartisan voting rights group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said automatic voting registration hopefully will have a positive impact on voter turnout.

Turnout has been increasing in recent years. More than 76% of Pennsylvania's registered voters cast ballots in the 2020 presidential election, the state's highest figure since 1992. That still left nearly one-quarter of registered voters out of the process, and even more people who were eligible to vote but weren't registered.

"Giving more Pennsylvanians a chance to have a say in the future of our families, communities and the state of Pennsylvania is a win," Hartman said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D- Swissvale, called the change "fantastic news."

"One step closer to reflective democracy for ALL people in PA," Lee tweeted.

Former President Barack Obama praised the move, saying he hopes more states would follow suit.

Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a moderate Republican, said Shapiro's move is "smart and responsible" and noted Republican-run states such as Georgia also have instituted the policy.

"Establishing (automatic voter registration) at Pennsylvania DMV offices not only protects the integrity of the state's voter rolls, but also allows voters across the state — from veterans and their families to elderly voters — to conveniently and securely ensure their registration is up to date and that they can cast a ballot on Election Day," Grayson said.

Some Republicans have criticized the process through which Shapiro implemented the change.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R- Hempfield, said voting registration changes should increase people's belief that the right to vote is safely guarded and changes shouldn't be made by circumventing state lawmakers through an executive action from the governor. The state Legislature is split with Democrats controlling the state House and Republicans controlling the state Senate.

"Unfortunately, Gov. Shapiro's maneuver to implement automatic voter registration does little to promote free and fair elections, but, instead, leaves Pennsylvanians who are concerned about election security voiceless by disengaging the general assembly who represents those Pennsylvanians," Ward said.

Sam DeMarco, chairman of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said legislation run through the General Assembly could have included compromises and addressed Republican priorities such as voter ID requirements. He said it is hypocritical of Shapiro to tie automatic voter registration to driver's licenses and then oppose a law to enforce people to show their licenses when voting.

DeMarco, who also sits on Allegheny County's board of elections, said he has no problem with every eligible voter getting registered in Pennsylvania, but he believes Shapiro's executive action portends other actions that would infringe on citizens.

"I am concerned about where it is going to lead next," DeMarco said. "How do you know that we are not going to send a mail-in application to every person in the state?"

He also said the move by Shapiro strikes him as political, saying that, under the current system, Republicans have been making large voter registration gains compared with Democrats. He said, over the past 12 years, Republicans have decreased Democrats' voter registration edge by 750,000 voters.

"This smacks of an attempt to stem the tide of Republican momentum," DeMarco said.

©2023 The Tribune-Review, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.