Federal health insurance website lags in voter registration assistance, Democrats charge

The 2024 presidential election could make efforts to boost voter registration in response to the executive order too politically sensitive to prioritize next year. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

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

The lawmakers, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote in a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra last week that HHS has made “important progress” toward fulfilling the 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 expeditiously implement changes to HealthCare.gov to facilitate access to voter registration services.”

The senators — Ben Ray Luján 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 — asked Becerra to provide, by July 10, a detailed report on progress by HHS toward carrying out the order.

In response, a CMS spokesperson said in a statement to States Newsroom that the agency was working to expand the places on Healthcare.gov that connect users to voting information at vote.gov without needing to be logged in. That 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 policy adviser for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center, dismissed those steps as insufficient.

“Unfortunately, these steps are not likely to make a difference in closing registration gaps,” Williamson said.

Advocates say adding a question about voter registration to the Healthcare.gov application would be much more effective at generating applications, because people who are applying for health care are more invested in the transaction than general users of the site.

“The agency must take steps to integrate a voter registration question into the application on Healthcare.gov immediately to promote access to voting across the country,” Williamson added. “There is no time to waste.”

Urgent issue

Providing a meaningful voter registration opportunity through health care signup 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 Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data cited by the senators.

Advocates say the issue is urgent because the 2024 presidential election could make efforts to boost voter registration in response to the executive order too politically sensitive to prioritize next year. And a new administration could pull back on enforcing the order, or rescind it outright, in 2025.

Williamson of the SPLC noted that Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi all currently use the federally facilitated health care exchanges to let their populations sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Georgia plans a new state-run platform later this year.

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

Last week’s letter is only the latest bid to prod HHS to action. In response to Biden’s 2021 order, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said it would make it easier for people using Healthcare.gov to access voter registration services, among other steps to promote registration.

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

As States Newsroom reported, 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. It found that progress by HHS toward making registration easier through Healthcare.gov has been “very slow-moving.”

This isn’t the first time the issue has spurred controversy. After the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2013, Republicans expressed outrage that the law might help boost voter registration. The Obama administration ultimately made the registration opportunity so unobtrusive and ineffective that voter advocates charged it was violating federal voting law.

It’s not only HHS that has lagged in carrying out Biden’s order. Most of the 10 agencies examined in the advocacy report — including the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service — had made only minimal progress toward the order’s goals, the authors found.

If every government agency carried out the order effectively, they could add around 7 million voters to the rolls each election cycle, the report estimated.

Advocates say the order was targeted in particular at expanding voting access for low-income and minority communities, who use federal government services at a higher rate than other groups.

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