Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The deadline to register to vote in the upcoming May primary passed earlier this week. Pennsylvania gains hundreds of thousands of new voters every year — but they don’t all sign up the same way.

There are three main ways Pennsylvanians become card-carrying members of democracy:

  • Fill out a paper application (usually done in person at registration events)
  • Via PennDOT (when you get your driver’s license)
  • Register online (new as of 2015)

Department of State data reviewed by Billy Penn shows some notable changes in how Keystone Staters registered to vote over the last decade — and all signs point to online voter registration making a considerable impact ahead of the 2020 presidential madness, even if paper applications stay popular.

Online applications surge (depending on age)

Since PennDOT registration was introduced in the mid-1990s, it’s been the most consistent channel for new voters.

Close to a million Pennsylvanians get on the books each this way each year — 962,000, on average — no matter what election is going on. Are they the most motivated voters? Hard to tell, data-wise. What’s certain is that this population is not going out of its way to register. The optional sign-up is easy to fill out when you get your driver’s license.

To gauge democratic enthusiasm, paper and online applications are a better indicator.

It’s hardly news that Pennsylvania saw massive boosts for both registrations and turnout before the presidential elections in 2008 and 2016 — more than double the annual average statewide — but how those voters registered changed with technology.

While the 1.5-million-person surge in 2008 happened largely on old-fashioned paper applications, registration data shows, the 1.7-million-person boost in 2016 was split between paper and the then-brand new online system. The OVR system was only implemented in 2015, and fewer than 60k people used it to sign up that freshman year. So the jump to nearly 860,000 voters in the next cycle is huge.

Double the number of registrations

Last year’s disparity is even more notable. The number of people who registered via non-PennDOT methods more than doubled in 2018 compared to the last midterm cycle in 2014 — and the leap was almost entirely due to online registrations.

Paper applications are still popular with certain demographics.

“We have an older state with a lot of seniors who feel much more comfortable doing this in person than registering in person,” said Dr. G. Terry Madonna, a veteran political analyst in Pennsylvania.

Registering to vote doesn’t mean people will actually cast a ballot, but the two are connected. Madonna, a seasoned pollster a Franklin & Marshall, said last year’s statewide turnout — the highest for a midterm election in Pennsylvania since 1982, with some 53 percent of eligible voters storming to the polls — was a strong indicator.

“I would be stunned if we don’t see an uptick in turnout next year,”Madonna said, “and I think they’re more likely to be online.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...