In a move to mobilize the 1.7 million voters in Pennsylvania who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered, Gov. Josh Shapiro directed his departments to institute automatic voter registration this week for residents who visit the DMV.

With the change, Pennsylvanians who go to that state Department of Transportation driver’s license and photo ID centers to obtain or renew their cards will be taken through the voter registration application process unless they choose to opt out, according to state officials.

“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,” Shapiro said in a statement.

Voter registration was already available at PennDOT centers, but now it’ll trigger automatically every time an eligible voter goes through the license and ID system.

Pennsylvania is now the 24th state to institute some form of automatic voter registration, a systemic change that has been linked to higher voter turnout in various public policy studies.

The move was widely praised by members of the governor’s political party and predictably criticized by Republicans who alleged he overstepped his authority.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the House’s GOP leader, said automatic voter registration should have gone through the Legislature and not executive guidance. The problem isn’t necessarily the end, but the means, he said.

“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,” Cutler said in a statement through his office.

In a tour through the national media junket this week, Shapiro defended his move as a way to strengthen democracy. In an interview with MSNBC, he said state officials believe it will result in “tens of thousands” of new registrants in the first year.

“This is a safe, secure, streamlined way to be able to get them to register and get them to participate in our democracy,” Shapiro said on the network’s “Morning Joe” program.

Asked by CNN why he didn’t go through the Legislature to enact such a change, Shapiro said he was very clear during his campaign for governor that he was in favor of automatic voter registration.

“The bottom line is, I’m well within my legal authority,” Shapiro said. “This is good for our democracy and good for voter participation.”

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who represents part of Allegheny County, lauded the move as a “great step towards a full, robust democracy for every Pennsylvanian.”

“Automatic voter registration makes it easier for folks to make their voices heard and choose leaders who share their values,” Costa said in a statement.

The last day to register to vote for the Nov. 7 election is Oct. 23. Interested Pennsylvanians can register to vote online, by mail or at a number of government agencies, including PennDOT.

The online application is available here.

Julian is the Western Pennsylvania politics and government bureau chief at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike.

Julian Routh

Julian is the Western Pennsylvania politics and government bureau chief at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike.