Federal agencies are making slow progress on a plan to register voters. Stock.adobe.com photo by Philip.

A group of US Senate Democrats is lobbying the Biden administration to make it easier for the millions of Americans who sign up for health insurance each year through a federal website to register to vote.

Lawmakers, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote in a letter to US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on Tuesday that HHS has made important progress toward achieving goals of a 2021 executive order issued by President Joe Biden, which aimed to spur federal agencies to offer voter registration opportunities.

But HHS can do more, the senators added. In particular, it should rapidly implement changes to HealthCare.gov to facilitate access to voter registration services.

Senators Ben Ray Lujn of New Mexico, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, as well as Warren have asked Becerra to provide a detailed progress report by July 10 made by HHS towards the execution of the order.

In response, a CMS spokesperson said in a US newsroom statement that the agency was working to expand places on Healthcare.gov that link users to voting information on voto.gov without having to log in. This includes a newly added link to vote. gov in the Healthcare.gov footer, and new links to voting information on several resource articles on the site.

Laura Williamson, senior policy adviser for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center, dismissed these steps as insufficient.

Unfortunately, these steps are unlikely to make a difference in closing registration gaps, Williamson said.

Proponents say that adding a voter registration question to the Healthcare.gov application would be much more effective at generating questions, because people applying for healthcare are more involved in the transaction than general users of the site .

The agency must take steps to immediately integrate a voter registration application into the Healthcare.gov application to promote ballot access across the country, Williamson added. There is no time to lose.

Urgent problem

Providing a meaningful opportunity for voter registration through health care enrollment could be a transformative step in expanding access to the ballot. Nearly 8.4 million Americans applied for health insurance through Healthcare.gov during the 2022 open enrollment period, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited by the senators.

Supporters say the matter is urgent because the 2024 presidential election could see efforts to boost voter registration in response to the executive order being too politically sensitive to prioritize next year. And a new administration could withdraw from enforcing the order, or rescind it outright, in 2025.

Williamson of the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi all currently use federally subsidized health care exchanges to enable their populations to enroll in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Georgia is planning a new state platform later this year.

So this would create a significant registration opportunity for millions of voters across the Deep South, Williamson said.

Tuesday’s letter is just the latest offer to spur HHS into action. In response to Biden’s 2021 order, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it would make it easier for people who use Healthcare.gov to access voter registration services, among other measures to promote registration.

In June 2022, the same group of Democratic senators wrote to Becerra asking for an update on progress toward meeting that pledge. Becerra did not answer.

As reported by States Newsroom, a coalition of voting and civil rights groups released a report in March of this year on how effectively 10 different federal agencies are implementing the order. He noted that HHS’s progress towards making it easier to register through Healthcare.gov has been very slow.

It is not the first time that the issue has raised controversy. After the Affordable Care Act took effect in 2013, Republicans expressed outrage that the law could help improve voter registration. The Obama administration eventually made the registration opportunity so discreet and ineffective that voters claimed it violated federal voting law.

It’s not just HHS that has fallen behind in doing Biden’s bidding. Most of the 10 agencies examined in the advocacy report, including the US Department of Education and the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, have made only minimal progress toward the order’s goals, they found the authors.

If every government agency enforced the order effectively, it could add about 7 million voters to the rolls each election cycle, the report estimates.

Supporters say the order specifically aimed to expand access to the ballot for low-income and minority communities, which use federal government services at a higher rate than other groups.

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Image Source : www.marylandmatters.org

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