Opinion: Pennsylvania moves toward more accessible democracy

Common Cause Pennsylvania celebrates the implementation of automatic voter registration and highlights calls to repeal our closed primary system.

This column was originally published in the Lancaster Online on Sunday, September 24, 2023.

Since 1970, Common Cause Pennsylvania has been led by one key principle: When more of us participate in our elections, our democracy grows stronger. To put it simply: We don’t care who you vote for, as long as you cast your vote.

Our nonpartisan, results-driven approach has helped to win major victories for voters, including no-excuse mail-in voting, increased funding for elections and better voter registration deadlines.

Last week in Pennsylvania, like-minded leaders took steps toward a more inclusive democracy with two key developments. On Monday, our five most recent former governors — Tom Corbett, Ed Rendell, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Tom Wolf — published an open letter calling for the repeal of Pennsylvania’s closed primaries.

That’s right — three Republicans and two Democrats came together to call for a policy change that would benefit Pennsylvanians from across the political spectrum. We’ve witnessed such political gridlock in our state Legislature this session that it’s hard to imagine a world where politicians regularly reach across the aisle. But when primaries are open to independent voters, candidates have to campaign to everyone, not just members of their parties.

Repealing closed primaries would also affect the way our elected officials govern. There would be far more bipartisanship in Harrisburg if our lawmakers had to appeal to voters outside of their own parties. By shifting their attention from their “base” to voters who have no allegiance to either party, our leaders might have to focus on governing effectively.

In their letter, the governors note that 74% of all Pennsylvania voters are in favor of opening our primaries, and doing so would give 1.2 million independent voters an opportunity to participate in the primary election process. While this is true, it’s also important to note that many of those voters are people of color. Younger voters are also far more likely to register as independent. Allowing these voters to have a say in our primaries is key to building a more reflective democracy.

The former governors’ letter is encouraging, but our good news doesn’t end there! On Tuesday, Gov. Josh Shapiro helped push Pennsylvania toward a stronger democracy by implementing automatic voter registration. This new process will allow those already presenting identification and other paperwork for a driver’s license or state ID at a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation driver and photo license center to register to vote at the same time.

In contrast to our previous system, which asked Pennsylvanians if they wanted to register to vote or update their registration, Shapiro’s new process will take residents through the registration process automatically unless they choose to opt out.

This small change has the potential to make a big impact on future voter turnout. According to a 2022 survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 60.5% of all Pennsylvania voter registration applications came through motor vehicle agencies.

Pennsylvania now joins 23 other states and the District of Columbia in lowering barriers to the ballot box for all eligible voters.

Automatic voter registration brings the commonwealth into the 21st century by ensuring that our government is as innovative as the people of Pennsylvania. Automatic voter registration saves us time and taxpayer dollars — a real win for our democracy and our wallets.

This is why Common Cause Pennsylvania has long advocated for reforms that modernize our elections and make them more secure, while also increasing government efficiency. For those who cry foul and say it could open the door to ineligible voters, the facts suggest otherwise.

Here’s how: Automatic voter registration actually protects our voter rolls by providing registration only to those who qualify, who don’t opt out of the service, and so long as they are providing the agency with all the relevant information required to establish eligibility. It’s also nonpartisan because it’s a process that reaches all eligible voters — regardless of party affiliation — so that they may participate in our democracy.

We know the process works because it’s already successful in nearly half the country, with momentum growing in just a few short years. Thanks to the work of groups like Common Cause and so many others, automatic voter registration is already working well for voters in blue states, red states and purple states. In 2015, Oregon became the first state to pass automatic voter registration. Since then, they’ve been joined by a diversity of states including Maryland, New Jersey, Nevada, Georgia, Illinois, West Virginia and many more.

But while we work to protect and expand the vote here in our commonwealth, we know voters in other states are not as fortunate — and that’s just not right. In a strong and healthy democracy, your right to vote shouldn’t be determined by what state you live in. That’s why we’re urging Congress to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and implement national voter protections that strengthen the voice of every American.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would protect voters in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., from voter suppression. In July, The Freedom to Vote Act was also introduced, legislation that would make our elections truly free and fair and help keep dark money from blocking progress in Washington on the issues we care about most.

We took big steps toward a more equitable democracy last week, and I look forward to seeing what our state Legislature will accomplish this fall.