Covered California failing to comply with National Voter Registration Act

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo credit: surroundsound5000)

Compared to the glitch-plagued rollout of the federal health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, California’s state run Health Benefit Exchange is off to a much smoother start. Leading the nation in enrollment, California officials say the state is on track to meet enrollment targets for 2014.

But despite successfully making affordable health care coverage accessible to millions of Californians, Covered California is failing to expand access to voter registration as required by state and federal law. 

California was the first in the country to designate the state’s Health Benefit Exchange as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Under the federal law, more commonly known as the “Motor Voter” act, government agencies providing public assistance are required to offer individuals opportunities to register to vote. That means all Californians applying for health coverage through the state exchange should simultaneously be offered the opportunity to register to vote.

The historic decision was hailed by voter advocates as another major step towards a more inclusive democracy in California. Given that 15 percent of the nation’s medically uninsured live in the Golden State, the integration of voter registration services into the healthcare enrollment process is predicted to boost California’s dismal voter registration rate, which is ranked 45th nationwide.

Despite announcing voter registration services would be incorporated into the enrollment process ahead the launch on October 1, six weeks later, Covered California has yet to do so.

For this reason, a broad coalition of more than 40 state and national organizations, including California Forward, urges Covered California to meet its legal obligation to provide voter registration services in compliance with the NVRA.

In a letter to Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee, the group writes: “By failing to comply with this obligation under the NVRA, Covered California is missing a historic opportunity to offer thousands of Californians the chance to register to vote.” The organization has yet to publicly respond.

Nearly 60,000 Californians have already successfully enrolled in health coverage since October 1, accounting for more than one third of enrollment nationwide. That breaks down to an enrollment rate of roughly one thousand per day. Until Covered California is in full compliance under the NVRA, thousands of Californians are being deprived of an additional opportunity to register to vote.

“California Forward commends the ACLU, California Voter Foundation, and Greenlining Institute for leading this effort to bring Covered CA in compliance with the NVRA,” California Forward Program Director Caroline Vance Bruister said. “This broad coalition is working to ensure that such a dramatic opportunity to build a more inclusive democracy was not squandered by bureaucratic hand-wringing.”

Roughly six million Californians are eligible for coverage through the state exchange. Of the estimated one million that will actually enroll, the majority are expected to be people of color from lower income communities. By eliminating barriers to voting, the integration of voter registration into the health plan enrollment process may help bring large swaths of these historically underrepresented groups into the democratic process for the first time.  

With more than one third of eligible California voters still unregistered, it’s vital the state ensure all designated voter registration agencies are in full compliance with the NVRA. California’s civic health hinges on the state’s ability to expand and diversify the electorate. As the letter correctly notes, “maximizing voter registration and participation not only builds a healthy democracy but is also a contributing factor to overall personal health.”

The letter’s signees hope that this issue, which was absent from discussion during Covered California’s first post-launch board meeting on October 24th, is finally addressed when the board convenes today. The webcast can be viewed here until 4 pm.


Alexandra Bjerg

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