When Governor Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania announced in September that the nation’s largest swing state would implement automatic voter registration, Donald Trump threw a conniption. “Pennsylvania is at it again!” the former president posted on Truth Social, his social-media platform. The switch, Trump said, would be “a disaster for the Election of Republicans, including your favorite President, ME!”
Trump’s panic is consistent with his (baseless) view that any reforms designed to increase voter turnout, such as expanding mail balloting and early voting, are part of a Democratic conspiracy to rig elections in their favor. But he may be wrong to fear automatic voter registration: Although Shapiro is a Democrat, if either party stands to gain from his move, it’s likely to be the GOP. In Pennsylvania, the reform “really has a potential to lean more Republican,” Seo-young Silvia Kim, an elections expert who has studied the system, told me. It’s “not great news for Democrats.”
First implemented in Oregon in 2016, automatic voter registration is now used in 23 states, including three—Alaska, Georgia, and West Virginia—that are governed by Republicans. Rather than requiring citizens to proactively register to vote, some states that use the system automatically enroll people who meet eligibility requirements and then give them the option to decline or opt out. The shift is subtler in Pennsylvania; the state has simply started prompting people to register to vote when they obtain a new or renewed driver’s license or state ID.
The seemingly minor change, which voting-rights advocates still place under the umbrella of “automatic” registration, is based on behavioral research showing that people are less likely to opt out of a choice than to opt in. By including voter registration as part of a commonly used process such as obtaining a driver’s license—and by presenting it as the default option rather than a form that citizens have to request—states have found that they can increase both registration and turnout in elections. “Even though the process isn’t that big of a shift, the effects are great,” Greta Bedekovics, the associate director of democracy policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told me.
Democrats have led the move toward automatic voter registration, and their 2021 comprehensive voting-rights legislation known as the For the People Act included a requirement that state-elections chiefs implement the policy. (The bill died in the Senate.) But automatic registration does not inherently favor one party or the other, and it has appealed to Republicans in some states because it helps officials clean up voter rolls and safeguard elections. “I don’t know who it will help, and that’s kind of the point,” Sean Morales-Doyle, the director of the voting-rights program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, told me.
A 2017 study by the Center for American Progress found that the voters who enrolled through Oregon’s automatic-registration system were more likely to be younger, more rural, lower income, and more ethnically diverse than the electorate as a whole—a demographic mix that suggests that Republicans might have benefited as much as Democrats.
Other research shows a more partisan advantage. While an assistant professor at American University in 2018, Kim, the elections expert, studied the effects of automatic registration in Orange County, California, the site of several hard-fought congressional races that year. She found that among residents who needed to update their registration because they had moved within the county, automatic registration resulted in no meaningful shift for Democrats. But it substantially boosted turnout among Republicans and independents—by 8.1 points and 7.4 points, respectively. “I was actually very surprised,” Kim said, adding that she’d expected that if any party gained, it would be Democrats. She suspects that Democrats may have been unaffected by the change because in 2018, they were already motivated to vote by Trump’s recent election.
The impact of automatic registration on any one election is likely to be marginal, but even small shifts could be significant in a state such as Pennsylvania, where less than one percentage point separated Trump from Hillary Clinton in 2016 and just more than one point separated Joe Biden from Trump four years later. Several factors suggest that the new system could benefit the GOP in Pennsylvania. Although Democrats have more registered voters in the state, Republicans have been closing the gap during the Trump era as more white working-class and rural voters who stopped voting for Democrats years ago have chosen to join the GOP. Democrats have countered that drift by capturing wealthier suburban voters, a group that helped Shapiro and first-term Democratic Senator John Fetterman win their races during last year’s midterm elections. Because this demographic already goes to the polls pretty reliably, though, automatic registration is more likely to boost turnout among the right-leaning rural working class.
An early-2020 study also suggested that the GOP stood to gain from higher voter turnout in Pennsylvania. The Knight Foundation surveyed 12,000 “chronic non-voters” nationwide before Democrats had settled on Biden as their nominee. Across the country, nonvoters said that if they cast a ballot, they would support the Democratic candidate over Trump by a slim margin, 33 percent to 30 percent. But in Pennsylvania, nonvoters went strongly in the other direction: By a 36–28 percent margin, they said they’d prefer Trump over the Democrat. The eight-point gap was the second largest (after Arizona) in favor of Trump in any of the 10 swing states that the organization polled.
“Democrats sometimes have the mistaken opinion that anybody that doesn’t show up is going to vote Democrat,” Mike Mikus, a longtime Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania, told me. “It’s been one of the myths in Democratic circles for years. Quite frankly, given the changing of the respective party bases, it makes sense that [automatic registration] may somewhat benefit Republicans.” Other recent polls have suggested that the political realignment of the Trump era has made the GOP more reliant on infrequent voters.
The place where Democrats could most use stronger turnout—particularly among the party’s base of Black voters—is Philadelphia, which provided about one-sixth of Biden’s statewide vote in 2020. The city had higher turnout than Pennsylvania as a whole in both 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama led the Democratic ticket, but it has lagged further and further behind in each election since. Last year, turnout in Philadelphia was just 43 percent, compared with 54 percent statewide.
Yet automatic voter registration might have less impact in Philadelphia than in other parts of the state. Studies have found that the switch drives higher turnout outside urban areas, where Democratic voters are most concentrated. That’s partly because automatic voter registration is operated through the state Department of Motor Vehicles—an agency with which people who rely on public transit are less likely to interact. For that reason, when New York implemented automatic registration in 2020, voting-rights advocates lobbied aggressively for the state to enroll voters through other agencies in addition to the DMV; as of 2018, a majority of the more than 3 million households in New York City did not own a car.
Pennsylvania has no plans to implement automatic voter registration beyond the state DMV. Democrats have been adamant that in enacting the new system, Shapiro was not trying to benefit his party but merely trying to reach the 1.6 million Keystone State residents who are eligible but not registered to vote. Although Republicans argued that the change should have gone through the state legislature, they have not formally challenged automatic registration in court. Few of them seemed to agree with Trump that the reform would doom the GOP. “Its impact will be somewhere between inconsequential and a nothingburger,” Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant in Pennsylvania, told me.
Democrats say it’s too early to assess the electoral impact of automatic voter registration, but they acknowledged that Republicans might gain more voters as a result. More than 13,500 Pennsylvanians registered to vote through the new system during its first six weeks of implementation, according to numbers provided by the Shapiro administration. Of that total, Republicans added about 100 more voters than Democrats. “Our former president is almost always wrong,” Joanna McClinton, who leads a narrow Democratic majority as the speaker of the Pennsylvania state House, told me. The fact that Trump is so opposed to the reform, she said, “reveals something we’ve always known, which is Republicans want to keep the electorate small, selective, and they don’t want to expand access to voting even if they could be the beneficiaries of it.”
Whether Trump regains the presidency next year could hinge on the tightest of margins in Pennsylvania. I asked McClinton if she worried that by implementing automatic voter registration, Shapiro had unintentionally bestowed an electoral gift on Republicans ahead of an enormously significant election. McClinton didn’t hesitate. “Not at all,” she replied quickly. “I look forward to seeing the full data, but I definitely am not looking at this from a political perspective but from a big-D democracy perspective.”