TIME Voting

Obamacare Voter Registration Criticized By Left and Right

Floridians Register To Vote For Presidential Election As Deadline Nears
A Florida Voter Registration Application sits at the Miami-Dade Elections Department Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

Civil rights organizations say the healthcare website doesn't fully comply with federal law and may miss registering millions of eligible voters. Some on the right think it shouldn't register voters at all.

Two liberal civil rights groups say the Affordable Care Act may not be in compliance with a federal voting law and are urging the Obama Administration to change how enrollees are prompted to register with the newly created federal insurance exchanges.

“There is a day and night difference between what is required by law and what the administration has done,” said Michael Slater, the executive director of Project Vote, one of two organizations that sent a letter of protest to the White House on Wednesday. “When you give people a meaningful offer to register to vote they will take it,” Slater said.

Under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), known as the Motor Voter law, states are required to provide eligible citizens an opportunity to register to vote when they apply for and renew their driver’s licenses, change their address, or apply for public assistance. Because the ACA’s health insurance exchanges provide public assistance in the form of Medicaid and federal subsidies, the NVRA applies, the voting rights advocates say.

The Obama Administration agrees that the Affordable Care Act needs to comply with the Motor Voter law and has taken some steps to give enrollees the opportunity to register through the federal healthcare marketplace. Online and paper applications for insurance inform applicants in writing that if they want to register to vote, they “can complete a voter registration form at usa.gov,” according to an official at the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid. After enrolling via healthcare.gov, a link at the bottom of the final page directs interested applicants to a site where they can print off a mail-in voter registration form.

In the letter sent to the White House, Project Vote and the liberal advocacy group Demos argue that isn’t enough. The federal exchange doesn’t use the language outlined in the law nor does it make the proper disclaimers required by the law, the advocates say. Under the NVRA, those registering applicants for federal aid are required to ask, “if you are not registered to vote where you live now, would you like to register to vote here today?” The law also requires that the applicant be told that registering to vote will not affect any public assistance they are applying for. The advocates complain that printing off applications is an inconvenience.

“We’re aware of the rocky start the Affordable Care Act had, and we understand the administration has been dealing with a lot of different issues around the rollout,” said Brenda Wright, the vice president of legal strategies as Demos. “But we have concluded that millions are missing the opportunity to register to vote through the exchanges.”

About 50 million eligible citizens are not registered to vote, according to research by Pew. Voting rights advocates say many of the unregistered are also likely to be uninsured: among the main targets of the Affordable Care Act are young people and low-income people, who are among the groups that are the least likely to vote. Slater of Project Vote estimates that about 10% of the people who go through exchanges would choose to register to vote if they had a meaningful offer. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, 3 million people have enrolled in private insurance and 6.3 million have been deemed eligible for Medicaid or the Child Health Insurance program through the federal and state based marketplaces. Some states have provided more explicit voter registration links within their state health exchanges, but the majority of Americans applying for insurance will do so through the federal marketplace.

Not everyone agrees that Obamacare should become a more aggressive means for registering voters. In March, Republican Congressman Charles Boustany of Louisiana questioned the Obamacare website’s voting information in a letter Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “While the health care law requires that government agencies collect vast information about Americans’ personal lives, it does not give your Department an interest in whether individual Americans choose to vote,” Boustany wrote. In June, Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh mentioned the issue and said Obamacare was about “building a permanent, undefeatable, always-funded Democrat majority.”

At least one independent, bipartisan group appears to agree with the liberal advocates that enough is not being done to register voters. In a report published by the White House Commission on Election Administration on Wednesday, The National Voter Registration Act was called the statute that is “most often ignored.”

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