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Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania challenge state, federal actions to boost voter registration

  • Marc Levy/The Associated Press
The Capitol building in Harrisburg on Oct. 12, 2023. Jeremy Long - WITF

The Capitol building in Harrisburg on Oct. 12, 2023. Jeremy Long - WITF

A group of conservative state lawmakers in Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging three voting-related executive branch actions designed to boost voter registration, including a 2021 executive order by President Joe Biden.

The lawsuit is expected to be one of many to litigate voting and election rules in a battleground state that is critical to 2024’s presidential contest. In the 2020 election, Trump’s campaign, state officials, the Democratic Party and others fought over the rules for mail-in voting, and Trump later baselessly smeared the election as rife with fraud and tried unsuccessfully to overturn it.

The lawsuit, filed by 24 Republican state lawmakers, challenges the legality of a 2021 executive order by Biden that orders federal agencies to consider ways to expand access to registering to vote and information about voting.

Many of the lawmakers on the lawsuit have sued previously to invalidate the state’s vote-by-mail law, voted to contest the 2020 presidential election or protested the certification of the 2020 election for Biden —  despite no significant evidence of voter fraud.

It also challenges two state-level actions. One is last fall’s introduction of automatic voter registration in Pennsylvania by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. The other is a 2018 state directive under then-Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. That directive said that counties cannot reject a voter registration application solely on the basis of finding that the applicant submitted a driver’s license number or Social Security number digits that don’t match what is in a government agency database.

The three actions needed — but never received — legislative approval, or conflict with existing law, the lawsuit contends.

Biden’s executive order has been the subject of lawsuits and letters from conservative officials and organizations seeking information about federal agency plans under it. Republican state attorneys general and secretaries of state have asked Biden to rescind it.

The Brennan Center for Justice last year called Biden’s executive order “one of the most substantial undertakings by any administration to overcome barriers to voting.”

The U.S. Justice Department declined comment on the lawsuit. Shapiro’s administration said in a statement that the state had full legal authority to enact both of the challenged actions, both are consistent with the law and that it is “frivolous” to suggest that it lacks the authority to implement automatic voter registration.

“This administration looks forward to once again defending our democracy in court against those advancing extreme, undemocratic legal theories,” Shapiro’s administration said.

The Shapiro administration in September instituted automatic voting, under which prompts on the computer screens in driver’s license centers take the user to a template to register to vote. That leaves it up to the user to choose not to register. Previously, prompts on the computer screen first asked users whether they wanted to register to vote.

Twenty-three other states and Washington, D.C., already have varying models of what is called “ automatic voter registration,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Still, former President Donald Trump has already accused Democrats of ” trying to steal ” Pennsylvania in 2024’s election through automatic voter registration.

In the 2020 election, Trump and his allies went to court repeatedly to overturn Biden’s victory and relentlessly criticized election-related decisions by the state’s Democratic-majority Supreme Court.

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