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PA automatic voter registration bill should be implemented

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In this incredibly tense election year, most people are chomping at the bit to vote on Nov. 8. Millions of Americans, however, aren’t even registered to vote, and this isn’t something that the attention grabbing races at the top of the ballot can fix. Luckily for Pennsylvanians, the State Legislature is considering two bills, Senate Bill 806 and House Bill 1874, that would make voter registration automatic. Automatic voter registration could have huge benefits, but the bills have failed to budge.

As of April, around 18 percent of Pennsylvanians eligible to vote were not registered. To put this in context, Obama won Pennsylvania in the 2012 presidential election by around 5.4 percent, which shows that if unregistered voters vote, they can easily swing an election. These unregistered voters are frequently the people who need representation in the government the most. They are disproportionately low-income voters who need the government to provide social safety nets and improved job prospects, minority voters who need government protection from discrimination, and young voters whose futures hang in the balance of government decisions. These voters need representatives who will go to bat for them, but since they are not registered, politicians have no incentive to pay attention to their needs.

It is easy to write off unregistered voters as lazy or apolitical, the argument being that if they cared, they would register. Carnegie Mellon students are not usually considered lazy, and political science majors are not usually labeled apolitical, but my freshman year I, a Carnegie Mellon political science major, did not manage to get registered in time for my first election in Pennsylvania. It’s a long and drawn out story, but the upshot is that between my workload, technology troubles, and other problems, dozens of relatively small obstacles piled up, and before I knew it the deadline had come and gone. That is how it is for many people who aren’t registered. They would love to do it, but they are busy with school or jobs or kids and life gets in the way.

The most obvious way to fix this problem is by changing voting registration to an opt-out system instead of the current status quo of needing to opt-in. Automatic voter registration assumes that people want a voice in government, and gives it to them unless they say otherwise. This seems more in line with the principles of democracy rather than only giving people a voice if they ask for it and jump through the hoops of registration to get it.

The bills before the State Legislature would create a system where government agencies that are currently authorized to register voters, such as the Department of Transportation, would automatically submit the necessary information to the Department of State to register the voter. The voter would then receive a notice allowing them to decline the registration. After 21 days, if the voter has not declined, they are added to Pennsylvania’s voter rolls.

These bills are modeled from the law passed in Oregon last year that created the first automatic voter registration system in the country. Since then, California, Vermont, and West Virginia have all followed suit, to great effect. According to The Nation, Oregon has gained an average of 12,889 new voters a month through the automatic registration program since it went into effect, and has added 15 voters to the voting rolls for every one who has declined registration. The proposed bills would not plunge Pennsylvania into uncharted territory.

Unfortunately, both the Senate and House bills have been stalled in committee for months, and the Republicans in charge of both legislative bodies are unlikely to bring it to a vote. Throwing bills into committee indefinitely is a common tactic used to avoid having to vote, making the bill’s cause a nonissue and effectively muzzling those who support it. The only way to combat this silencing is to bring public attention to the issue and pressure state representatives to take a stand on the issue. The bill won't move until we, the public, make it move by making it clear to our representatives that we care about this issue and won’t accept their inaction. The legitimacy of our democracy isn’t something that should be left to rot in committee.