Philly Democrat proposes automatic Pa. voter registration

 Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes talks about legislation to boost voter registration during a press conference at the National Constitution Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes talks about legislation to boost voter registration during a press conference at the National Constitution Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Inspired by a civil rights anniversary and a new law in the Pacific Northwest, a Philadelphia Democrat is pushing to make voter registration automatic in Pennsylvania.

“We will no longer play defense,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes at a Tuesday news conference at the Constitution Center, where he announced a new bill to create a “universal, automatic” registration system. “We will no longer be in a position where we will allow folks to deny us the opportunity to vote. We are now engaging fully in securing the right to vote for every Pennsylvania citizen who legally can do it.”

Hughes estimates about two million Pennsylvanians are eligible to vote but unregistered. The state is home to about 10 million voting-age residents.

Under his proposal, anyone legally entitled to vote would be automatically registered when using certain state services, such as getting a driving or hunting license, requesting copies of a birth certificate, or applying for public benefits. Voters would then receive a letter notifying them of their registration, allowing them to choose a party, remain independent or “opt out.”

Hughes said he was inspired in part by recent passage of an automatic registration system in Oregon. The practice of automatic registration is common abroad, but Oregon’s system is the nation’s first.

But the underlying mission is to continue the work of the civil rights movement, when expansion of voting rights was a signature achievement. Hughes, who represents Philadelphia and parts of Montgomery County, said his bill represents a conscious effort to push back against attempts by Republicans to pass restrictive measures such as requiring voters to present specifici forms of identification.

He chose the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Voting Rights Act to announce his proposal, and the bill number — SB 806 — is a reference to Aug. 6, 1965, the date that the VRA was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Standing in support Tuesday were representatives of the ACLU, NAACP, the homeless advocacy group Project HOME, and faith-based groups POWER and the Jewish Social Policy Action Network.

“We can’t force a person to vote, but the state surely shouldn’t stand in the way,” said the ACLU’s Reggie Shuford.

Also present were a handful of regional lawmakers, including Art Haywood, the freshman Democratic senator from Northwest Philadelphia.

“This legislation, in my opinion, will prevent the bullies who fear democracy, who want to exclude and not include, from limiting our right to vote,” Haywood said.

Hughes said he’ll try to win bipartisan support for automatic registration by backing a Republican bill, put forth by Sen. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster, that would create online voter registration. Hughes called the two bills “logical companions” that both intend to increase overall voter participation, regardless of party.

Smucker’s chief of staff, Matt Parido, said that his boss’s interest in online registration was simple: He wants to maximize the number of people voting.

“It’s 2015. The technology is secure and available. It’s just a move in the right direction in terms of voter participation,” Parido said.

Parido says he’s not yet sure if Smucker will support the Hughes bill. But Smucker might need some support of his own. The Republican tried to pass online registration last year without success.

“We’ve had this bill now for three sessions. Last year it was voted out of the Senate and didn’t get out of the House governing committee,” Parido said. “This year, Sen. Smucker wants to continue to push this issue … it’s a great step in increasing voter participation in Pennsylvania.”

A state Republican Party representative declined to comment on Hughes’ bill, saying GOP officials haven’t yet had time to look it over.

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