Are voter registration opportunities good medicine? For the one-third of uninsured Americans who are also not registered to vote it would appear so. When people sign up for health care through the Affordable Care Act, they should also have the opportunity to register to vote. And we don’t just mean that as a pie-in-the-sky-dream-type way. It’s actually the law.
Some background for those who aren’t voting-rights nerds: In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), better known as the “Motor Voter Act,” required all state agencies that offer public assistance to also offer easily accessible voter registration services.
As government agencies offering public assistance, both state- and federally administered healthcare exchanges are required by law to offer easy, accessible voter registration services to everyone who passes through the exchanges, including the five million Americans who have already done so.
On Friday, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced that California’s healthcare exchange, Covered California, will work toward full compliance with the NVRA and offer voter registration services to all Californians who have enrolled in health insurance plans and Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) through the exchange.
This comes nearly a year after Bowen’s May 2013 statement that California would take the lead amongst state-administered exchanges to comply with the NVRA by designating Covered California as a voter registration agency. (Other states have since complied with the law.)
Prior to Friday, however, Covered California had not lived up to its word. Though the exchange has offered unprecedented access to insurance, enrolling 3.5 million Californians in affordable healthcare plans, the state failed to comply with its legal obligation under the NVRA to offer those same Californians access to voter registration opportunities. In acknowledgement of this fact, the ACLU California Voting Rights Project, the national ACLU Voting Rights Project, Demos, and Project Vote sent Secretary of State Bowen a notice letter seeking to collaborate with her office and Covered California to offer voter registration services to those who had not received them when passing through the exchanges or face legal consequences.
Covered California has now reestablished its commitment to do right by both the people of California and federal law by offering voter registration services through the exchanges going forward and by reaching out to the millions of Californians who were not offered service when initially passing through the exchanges. Those who registered for health insurance through Covered California will receive voter registration cards in the mail offering the opportunity to register, including clear and detailed instructions about how to register to vote.
Though this is an unequivocal victory for the citizens of California, there is still work to be done nationwide. Colorado, Nevada, Hawaii, and Washington have not yet fulfilled their commitments to their residents, and under the law, by offering voter registration services through their exchanges. We will continue to hold them to their obligation to the democratic process.
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