Voter registration train begins rolling forward with California’s Health Benefit Exchange

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo credit: Keith Ivey)

Hearts broke in rapid succession across the country today as word quickly spread on the National Zoo’s panda cam going dark as a game of political chicken over “Obamacare” played out in our nation’s capitol. Ironically, despite the ongoing Congressional stalemate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which resulted in the U.S. government shuttering its doors for the first time in 17 years, state health benefit exchanges opened for business today as planned.

Without the distraction of adorable panda cubs, the nation’s eyes will soon turn from the shenanigans in Washington to the rollout of California’s health insurance marketplace, Covered California. The launch of Covered California is expected to improve not only the health of millions of Californians but the state’s overall civic health as well.

California was first in the union to designate the state’s Health Benefit Exchange as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), as required by a law authored by Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) last year. Although others are expected to follow California’s lead, the Golden State is just one of five that will provide voter registration services to applicants for healthcare coverage.

“I don’t think I can overstate what a truly important and unique moment this is for California,” said Lori Shellenberger, Director of ACLU of California’s Voting Rights Project. “Millions of Californians applying for healthcare coverage will simultaneously be offered the chance to register to vote. We’re the first state to do this and we’re the first state to utilize our new online voter registration system to get this done.”

“We are thrilled….[Covered California] achieved what many thought was impossible,” said Shellenberger.

Talk about multi-tasking. California is home to 15 percent of the nation’s medically uninsured and more unregistered voters than the entire population of Arizona (!).

In the words of Vice President Joe Biden, this is a “BFD”.

“One of the reasons this is such an exciting opportunity is that the same people enrolling in Covered California are often the people who have lower voter registration rates,” said Raul Macias, Voting Rights Advocate, ACLU of California.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s decision to incorporate voter registration into the healthcare enrollment process nine months ahead of schedule significantly reduces barriers to access to a broader part of the electorate. With more than 6 million Californians eligible to enroll in a health plan through Covered California, California’s voter registration rolls are predicted to become longer and more representative of the state’s diverse electorate.

“California Forward commends the Secretary of State, Covered California and Future of California Elections members like ACLU and Greenlining for taking steps to expand opportunities for voter registration and build a more inclusive democracy,” California Forward Program Director Caroline Vance Bruister said.

People of color from lower income communities are expected to make up the majority of Covered California enrollees. Although these communities have historically been left out of the democratic process, the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) Senior Director of Advocacy and Civic Engagement Marc Wetherhorn believes health centers can reverse this trend.

“Because health centers are a trusted source, we really think we have an opportunity to engage our patients in registering to vote probably more effectively than in many other settings,” Wetherhorn said.

But NACHC isn’t satisfied with simply adding voters to the rolls, they want to get their patients to the polls. “In the end we’re not really interested in just registering them, we want them to actually vote,” said Wetherhorn. “Elections matter to the future and the health of our clients. The populations least likely to vote are clients at our health centers.”

In an effort to increase turnout among their clients, NACHC partnered with Rock The Vote to develop an online voter registration tool allowing them to follow up with new voters in the future with election reminders, information about absentee voting and where to find a polling location.

“In California we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to registering people to vote,” Macias said. “Many people don’t realize that voter registration is a problem here.”

With more than a third of eligible voters still not registered, the Golden State has the dubious distinction of ranking among the bottom five states in voter registration numbers. Expanding and diversifying the electorate is vital to the future health and legitimacy of our democracy.

As a member of the Future of California Elections coalition, California Forward and will continue to work with partners to reduce barriers to ballot box and improve voter participation. 


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg