Covered California must boost voter registration efforts, say critics

6:31 PM, Dec 3, 2013   |    comments
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California may be leading the nation in health insurance enrollment, but critics say it's lagging in complying with a federal law that encourages voter registration -- a problem that could lead to a lawsuit before the end of December.

"It's an embarrassment, frankly," says Lori Schellenberger, director of the California Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

At issue is whether Covered California, the state agency created to implement the Affordable Care Act, must do more to help register voters under existing law.  The ACLU and other organizations believe the agency isn't doing enough, and have threatened possible legal action to force action.

"They are required by state and federal law to allow every single applicant the right to register to vote," says Schellenberger.

The debate largely focuses around the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, better known as the 'Motor Voter Law,' which focused on including voter registration as part of the services available at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

But the law goes further than just the DMV, requiring voter registration services be made available by any agency that provides public assistance.

Covered California, which was designated by state officials in May (PDF) as just such an agency, offers a link on its website.  But its staffers have not received specific training to answer voting registration questions, nor does it provide registration materials.

"We are coming into compliance fully as quickly as we can," says Dana Howard, a spokesman for Covered California.  "This is a start-up agency."

But the health exchange admits a more robust effort to help those who buy insurance to also become registered voters is still several months away.

That, say some, is a huge missed opportunity.

"You look at the demographics of who's not registered to vote, and you look at the demographics of who is not currently covered in health insurance, and there's a lot of cross-over," says Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation.

Voting rights advocates say all but two other state-run health exchanges in the United States are offering more comprehensive voter registration services than California.

"We are going to improve upon that in the next few months," says Covered California's Dana Howard.

State agencies in California have not done much tracking in years past of how much assistance they are providing under the 'Motor Voter' law.  A new law requires more reporting of those efforts to be in place by July 1, 2014.

In the meantime, advocates wish more could be done to engage with Californians joining the ranks of the insured.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have already come through Covered California's doors," says the California Voter Foundation's Kim Alexander.  "None of those people have been provided with the opportunity to register to vote in the way that's required by the federal law."

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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