A group of Senate Democrats is urging 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 Tuesday to US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra that HHS was making “important progress” in meeting the goals of an Executive President Joe Biden made the 2021 order aimed at getting federal agencies to offer voter registration facilities.
“But HHS can do more,” the senators added. “In particular, changes to HealthCare.gov should be implemented expeditiously to facilitate access to voter registration services.”
The senators — New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján, Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, and Warren — asked Becerra to provide a detailed report by July 10 on HHS’s progress when executing the order.
In response, a CMS spokesperson said in a statement to States Newsroom that the agency is working to expand the places on Healthcare.gov that connect users to voting information on vote.gov without requiring them to be logged 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, a senior voting rights policy adviser at the Southern Poverty Law Center, dismissed those moves as insufficient.
“Unfortunately, these steps are unlikely to make a difference in closing enrollment gaps,” Williamson said.
Proponents say adding a voter registration question to the Healthcare.gov application would be much more effective in generating applications because people applying for healthcare are more invested in the transaction than general users of the site.
“The agency must take action to immediately include a voter registration question in the Healthcare.gov application to promote access to voting across the country,” added Williamson. “There is no time to lose.”
Providing a meaningful way for voter registration through healthcare registration could be a transformative step in expanding ballot access. According to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited by the senators, nearly 8.4 million Americans applied for health insurance through Healthcare.gov during the 2022 open filing period.
Proponents say the issue is urgent because the 2024 presidential election could mean efforts to promote voter registration in response to the executive branch order are too politically sensitive to prioritize next year. And a new government could withdraw enforcement of the order in 2025 or repeal it altogether.
Williamson of the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi all currently use state-sponsored health exchanges to allow 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 meaningful registration opportunity for millions of voters in the Deep South,” Williamson said.
Tuesday’s letter is just the latest attempt to nudge HHS into action. In response to Biden’s 2021 order, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it would make voter registration services easier for people using Healthcare.gov, among other steps to encourage registration.
In June 2022, the same group of Democratic senators wrote to Becerra asking for an update on progress toward fulfilling that promise. Becerra didn’t answer.
In March this year, a coalition of electoral and civil rights groups released a report on how effectively ten different federal agencies are implementing the order, the States Newsroom reported. It noted that HHS’s progress in simplifying enrollment through Healthcare.gov is “very slow.”
This isn’t the first time the issue has sparked controversy. After the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2013, Republicans expressed outrage that the law could help boost voter registration. Ultimately, the Obama administration made the registration process so unobtrusive and ineffective that voter advocates accused it of violating federal electoral law.
It’s not just HHS that’s lagging behind in executing Biden’s order. The authors found that most of the 10 agencies examined in the Advocacy Report — including the US Department of Education and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services — had made minimal progress toward meeting the regulation’s goals.
If all government agencies effectively implemented the order, they could add about seven million voters to the electoral roll each election cycle, the report estimates.
Supporters say the order was specifically aimed at expanding voting access for low-income communities and minorities, who use the federal government’s services more often than other groups.