Voting Advocates Say Covered California Can Do More to Increase Voter Registration

(David McNew/Getty Images)

(David McNew/Getty Images)

By Sara Hossaini

Just two days after President Obama called for voting reforms, the National Commission on Voting Rights met in San Francisco to get an overview of elections and voting in the U.S.

The hearing is part of a national fact-finding effort that will inform a report to be presented to the U.S. congress in the spring addressing barriers to voter participation across the country.

So what’s a voting rights story doing on a health blog? Thursday’s panels and public testimony included voter rights advocates who say Covered California is falling down on its legal duty to give users an opportunity to register to vote. The 1993 “motor voter act” requires that any agency that provides public assistance, including the DMV — and now, Covered California — offer voter registration to the public.

More than a million Californians have completed applications for health care coverage — either a private insurance plan or Medi-Cal —  through the Covered California website.

Speakers at the hearing called it a missed opportunity.

Former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso presided over the fact-finding hearing organized by the nonprofit Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Reynoso says the trouble isn’t a lack of good laws, it’s enforcement and possibly a lack of resources funneled down to help agencies do the work.

“Public agencies are not doing their job in increasing the registration rate,” Reynoso said, “and presumably you have more people registered, more people would vote.”

ACLU California’s Lori Shellenberger says that people are slipping through the cracks. “We know that people who have been excluded from our health care system are the same people that have been excluded from our democracy.”

Shellenberger says the two groups closely mirror each other in size and demographics. She says there are approximately 6 million non-registered eligible voters in California as compared to 5.5 million Californians without health insurance. In other words, one in four people that could sign up to vote, don’t.

Last November, KQED’s Scott Shafer reported that the California Health Benefit Exchange Board was taking a “phased in” approach to voter registration, presumably making sure the health insurance part is working well first.

Covered California says it has since introduced a small ‘Register to Vote’ link, but it’s buried on its website in a place consumers might not be inclined to look. The link connects users to the California Secretary of State’s voter registration portal.

Shellenberger is not satisfied and points out the National Voter Registration Act requires that state agencies that provide public assistance must also offer voter registration material to anyone they help.

“Covered California cannot skirt its NVRA responsibilities by placing links in random places on its website,” Shellenberger said. “The voter registration question and assistance with completing the voter registration application must be fully incorporated into all of Covered California’s application processes, whether they be online, in person, by mail or though its call-in service centers.”

It’s clear Covered California has a lot on its plate, but many are still wondering how hard it could be to guide users? The upside is obvious, and the reality stark: California has the 5th lowest voter turnout ranking 47th in the nation with less than half of eligible Californians showing up at the polls.

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