Twenty-four Pennsylvania legislators filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday against President Joe Biden, Gov. Josh Shapiro, and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Al Schmidt, asking for an injunction to stop changes to voter registration that they claim are unconstitutional.
The Republican lawmakers claim Shapiro and Biden usurped the role of the state legislature to make laws concerning voting.
Last September, Shapiro announced people would automatically be registered to vote when they get their driver’s licenses or state government ID. However, because he did not go to the legislature to ask them to pass a law first, they said his action was unconstitutional.
“The citizens of Pennsylvania have been victimized by the extraordinary overreach of executive officials who have made changes to election laws with no authority to do so. If we don’t take action to stop this, there is no limit to the changes they might make to further erode Pennsylvania’s election system in 2024 and beyond,” said Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-York).
On March 7, 2021, Biden signed Executive Order 14019, requiring all federal agencies to develop a plan to increase voter registration and increase voter participation or get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, the suit said.
The legislators claim that the action was unconstitutional.
In response to EO 14019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced federal health centers located across the country, including Pennsylvania, get involved in voter registration activities. The Department of Education “dear colleague” letter to universities, including those located in Pennsylvania, directing them to use Federal Work Study funds “to support voter registration activities,” whether they occur “on or off-campus.”
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development likewise instructed more than 3,000 public housing authorities, which manage approximately 1.2 million public housing units across the country, including Pennsylvania, to run voter registration drives in those units, the suit said.
Other agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the General Services Administration, began similar initiatives, the suit said. The GSA, which administers federally-owned buildings, including those located in Pennsylvania, is now available for voter registration drives by third-party organizations, regardless of whether the agency or agencies that own or operate out of those buildings have received an NVRA designation.
While Keefer chairs the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus, not all of the legislators involved are members. Also, the group of lawmakers are not using taxpayer funds to pay for the lawsuit, which was filed by Attorney Erick Kaardal, a partner of Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, along with the nonprofit Election Research Institute.
“Over the past few years, we have seen nonlegislative officials in various states taking it upon themselves to set election rules,” said Karen DiSalvo, attorney and vice president of the Election Research Institute. “This is not the function of the executive branch. This case is an attempt to put an end to that practice in Pennsylvania.”
Keefer said the group chose Erickson because of his track record in the field.
“We talked to a lot of attorneys,” she said. They wanted to bring a federal rather than state lawsuit because of the nature of Pennsylvania courts. The state Supreme Court is majority Democrat. And by waiting until 2024, the legislators have standing since their names will be on the ballot this year.
Keefer is running for state Senate.
“It is abundantly clear that Gov. Shapiro’s commonsense action to securely streamline voter registration and enhance election security is within the administration’s authority. Any suggestion that the administration lacks the authority to implement automatic voter registration is frivolous. This administration looks forward to once again defending our democracy in court against those advancing extreme, undemocratic legal theories,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for Shapiro.
“Gov. Shapiro remains focused on protecting our democracy and ensuring our elections are free, fair, safe, and secure.”
Amy Gulli, spokeswoman for the Department of State, said, “State law grants the Secretaries of the Commonwealth and Transportation broad authority to determine the form of Pennsylvania’s combined driver’s license and voter registration form. Contentions that the changes to the voter registration process through the Department of Transportation in September 2023 – which have resulted in a 44 percent increase in new voter registrations over the same time period two years ago – violate federal or state law are groundless. Those changes are, in fact, consistent with both the National Voter Registration Act and Pennsylvania law.
“With respect to the Department’s HAVA-Matching Directive issued in 2018, that too is fully consistent with applicable law and remains active,” she said.