WASHINGTON -- Voting rights groups are calling on President Barack Obama’s administration to provide better voter registration opportunities to Americans signing up for health insurance in the more than 30 states where the federal government runs exchanges.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which is often referred to as the "motor voter" law, requires that states offer Americans the chance to apply to register to vote in federal elections when they apply for a driver's license or visit public offices that provide public assistance or services to people with disabilities. The law says the public assistance agency must assist applicants in completing their voter registration application form, unless they say they don’t need help registering.
The three voting rights groups -- Demos, the League of Women Voters and Project Vote -- sent a letter to the administration on Wednesday arguing that the sign-up process for health insurance benefits under the ACA wasn’t complying with this voter registration law. They wrote that they were prepared to seek legal recourse if the government didn’t come under compliance with the legislation.
The letter points out that the number of voter registration applications submitted from Medicaid transactions in Mississippi was averaging about 900 per month before the ACA was implemented. After the state’s Medicaid enrollment process was taken over by the federal government, the average number of voter registrations dropped to roughly 150 per month.
"The Administration’s failure to provide voter registration services to persons who apply for health care through the [federally facilitated exchanges] is not merely a lost opportunity to increase the numbers of eligible persons who register and vote," the groups wrote. "It is actually decreasing the numbers of voter registration applications submitted in states that rely on FFEs for ACA enrollment."
The groups claim that as many as 1.7 million voter registrations have already been lost "because of the Administration’s refusal to act," and that more may lose the opportunity to register as another open enrollment period begins Nov. 1.
The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, which manages the exchanges in states that refused to set up their own, has suggested that it complies with the legislation. It asks health insurance applicants if they want to register to vote at the bottom of the online form that states whether the applicant is eligible to receive tax credits for their insurance. (See a screenshot of the form at the bottom of this story.) The form links to voter registration resources at the Election Assistance Commission’s website.
"The Administration strongly supports the goals of the NVRA and is committed to enforcing its requirements, as applicable," the agency said in a statement.
Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, senior counsel at Demos, called this an "almost hidden voter registration question" that does not satisfy the NVRA.
To comply with the NVRA, she said, the exchange would need to directly ask applicants if they want to register to vote because applicants are less likely to see registration information if they aren't forced to answer a question about it.
"The NVRA also requires explanatory language so that people understand their rights regarding registration," Rolnick Borchetta told The Huffington Post. "And even if the Administration fixes the question in the portal, the NVRA requires that navigators and assisters be trained to offer voter registration assistance. Section 7 of the NVRA requires all of these -- and other -- specific protocols to ensure eligible voters receive a meaningful chance to register."
In comparison, California's state exchange offers more information about the voter registration process.
Voting rights advocates bring NVRA lawsuits against states relatively frequently to boost registration rates. North Carolina, California, Georgia and New Mexico are just some of the states that have either been put on notice or settled lawsuits in the last few years. And the Department of Justice has threatened to sue Alabama over its closure of driver’s license offices in rural, low-income parts of the state.
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