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EDITORIAL NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Trudy Schafer, director of program of the League of Women Voters of California
Through a legal settlement announced this week, millions of Californians who have applied for health benefits through our state health exchange, Covered California, will be mailed a voter registration card, and the opportunity to register to vote will be integrated into future health insurance applications. This is a double victory: Californians are getting health insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), also commonly referred to as Obamacare, and this agreement helps ensure that our democracy is healthy and accessible to all.
Voting Rights and Health Care? What’s the Connection?
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which the League of Women Voters fought for 20 years ago, makes voter registration convenient and accessible by requiring states to make voter registration opportunities available at department of motor vehicles offices and other agencies that provide public services. The new health benefit exchanges created by the ACA are just such public service agencies, and in fact California’s Secretary of State designated Covered California as an NVRA agency last May 2013.
Has Covered California Been Complying with the Requirements?
Although the enrollment period for health care coverage began last October, voter registration has not been part of the application process. Numerous attempts by the League of Women Voters of California and other voter advocates to prod Covered California into complying with the law were met with delay. But earlier this week, a settlement was finally reached that includes mailing a voter registration card to every Californian who had previously applied for benefits and ensures that those who apply going forward are provided voter registration opportunities. We are proud that this settlement not only impacts future enrollees, but also seeks to redress the earlier oversights.
How Will This Boost Participation in Our Democracy?
Californians can be proud of Covered California’s record in reaching out to people who need health care coverage; nearly 3.8 million people had completed applications through the end of February. Giving all of them the opportunity to register or update their registration is an excellent way to help them become more civically engaged. And that’s exactly what Congress intended when it passed the NVRA!
By incorporating voter registration into the health care enrollment process, millions of eligible Americans in California and across the country - particularly those who are least likely to already be registered to vote - will have the opportunity to participate in our democracy.
What Can Other States Learn from This?
The California League, Young Invincibles, and several individuals who were not offered voter registration by Covered California were represented in negotiations by the Demos, Project Vote and ACLU and its Voting Rights Project. We’ve illustrated the value of working collaboratively, and of keeping the pressure on a government agency to follow its legal obligation to support citizens. Moreover, this agreement can serve as a model for other state health benefit exchanges around the country, many of which are already working to incorporate voter registration. The League of Women Voters of the United States is working with Leagues in many states to support this important work.
Making it easier for everyone to register and participate in elections is good for democracy.