Judge tosses lawsuit led by Pa. Freedom Caucus against Biden, Shapiro

Mar. 27—HARRISBURG — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Republican legislators in the Pennsylvania General Assembly that challenged the constitutionality of election-related changes including the implementation of automatic voter registration in the commonwealth.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Wilson of the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled Tuesday that the 27 Republicans lacked legal standing in their claim against President Joe Biden, Gov. Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania Department of State.

"In 2020, I defeated Donald Trump and his conspiracy theorist allies in court more than 40 times to defend Pennsylvanians' votes and protect access to the ballot box. Today, we've done it again by getting their frivolous effort to stop automatic voter registration in our commonwealth dismissed. Automatic voter registration is safe, secure, efficient, and entirely within my administration's authority," Shapiro said in a prepared statement.

"As governor, I will always remain focused on protecting our democracy and ensuring our elections are free, fair, safe, and secure. Let today's ruling be another reminder that taking legal advice from Donald Trump is never a winning strategy," Shapiro said.

Two dozen Republican lawmakers filed the lawsuit on Jan. 25, led by members of the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus including representatives Dawn Keefer, Aaron Bernstine, Tim Bonner, Stephanie Borowicz, Kathy Rapp, David Rowe and Joanne Stehr. Three additional lawmakers including Marla Brown subsequently joined the lawsuit.

They were represented by the Minneapolis-based law firm of Mohrman, Kaardal, & Erickson, which filed a similar suit in Michigan and was involved in previous litigation challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The plaintiffs attempted to claim "individual injuries" suffered as a result of automatic voter registration and other initiatives disputed in the lawsuit. The judge found that their own lawsuit made clear that their claims would represent legal injuries suffered equally by all members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate and not simply the plaintiffs.

Wilson cited binding legal precedent in rejecting their argument that they should be granted an "individual" right under the Electors and Elections Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

"Plaintiffs have not alleged any individualized and particularized harm. Accordingly, Plaintiffs do not have standing to pursue their challenges to the executive actions at issue in this lawsuit, and their amended complaint is dismissed," Wilson wrote in a 27-page ruling.

The lawsuit claimed that decisions made by the defendants disrupted the authority of state legislatures to enact changes to how elections are administered through the law-making process.

They accused Shapiro of violating the Constitution when he authorized a shift in September establishing automatic registration at PennDOT driver's license and photo ID centers, making it an opt-out process rather than the opt-in process that had been in place for 30 years.

The lawsuit challenged an executive order issued by Biden in 2021 that empowered agency heads to further promote voting and voter registration along with a 2018 directive from the Department of State that, citing federal law, instructs election officials not to reject voter registration applications solely on a mismatch between personal identifying numbers on the application and what's on record in a state database.

As of March 20, automatic voter registration reflects near even splits of new registrants by party. According to the latest data from the Department of State, there have been 65,810 new registrations since Sept. 19 when the shift occurred — 34.5% registering as Republican, 30.6% Democrat and 34.8% independent.