Exchange must offer voter registration, activists say

Exchange must offer voter registration, activists say

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Voting rights activists say Colorado’s health exchange must serve as a mandatory voter registration agency, but exchange managers contend they do not need to comply with the law popularly known as the Motor Voter Act.

For now, activists with Colorado Common Cause are trying to encourage exchange managers to comply with the law. But if negotiations fail, they may sue the exchange.

Why, you might ask, is there any link between voter registration and an online marketplace to help people shop for health insurance?

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires agencies, such as driver’s license bureaus and all state offices that offer public assistance, to serve as “mandatory voter registration agencies.” This means that along with helping enroll people for public and private health insurance programs and getting them tax credits to reduce health insurance costs, exchange workers would also help people register to vote or update their voter registration records.

California’s health exchange will be serving as an official voter registration agency, and in a letter to the exchange from voting activists at Common Cause, Executive Director Elena Nunez said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has already determined that exchanges are subject to the Motor Voter law.

“Our goal is to work with them and other stakeholders, and encourage them to do the right thing,” Nunez said. “A lot of us will be watching.”

If dialogue doesn’t work, she said a lawsuit could be a possibility down the road.

Nunez said the purpose of the Voter Registration Act is to increase access to voting by making it easier for people to register.

Voting access has become increasingly politicized with dueling activists trying to suppress or encourage voters sympathetic to their ideologies.

Patty Fontneau, executive director and CEO for the exchange, said during a board meeting on Monday that exchange managers had consulted with elections experts at the Secretary of State’s office and had gotten an opinion that the exchange will not have to comply.

“We’re not specifically a state office and we do not provide public assistance. There’s not a requirement to be a formal NVRA (National Voting Rights Act) site,” Fontneau said.

In the opinion, Judd Choate, director of elections for the Secretary of State, said “Connect for Health Colorado is a freestanding entity and is not imbedded (sic) within a state agency.”

He said that because the exchange won’t directly be qualifying people for public health benefits through Medicaid and because it’s not a state agency, the exchange does not need to offer voter registration services.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who is considering a gubernatorial bid, has been aggressive in removing ineligible voters from registration rolls.

Nunuz of Common Cause said her organization “respectfully disagrees” with the Secretary of State’s opinion because the exchange “is an office of the state” and will offer tax subsidies, which by definition qualify under the law as “public assistance.”

“Connect for Health Colorado was created by statute and is ‘an instrumentality of the state,’” Nunez wrote in her letter to Fontneau.

While the intersection of the Affordable Care Act with the Voter Registration Act is new, Nunez said the legal precedent is clear “that if you are performing functions for the state you are required to comply with the NVRA.”

For instance, she said states sometimes contract with nonprofit agencies like Colorado’s health exchange to provide services for disabled people and those entities must comply with the Voter Registration Act.

Furthermore, she said it’s clear that the exchange will be helping people get federal tax credits, which are forms of public assistance.

She urged exchange managers to move quickly to embed registration tools now.

“If it’s integrated on the front end, it shouldn’t be too difficult,” Nunez said. “It gets more difficult if the exchange is set up and they try to overlay it later. That’s why we are encouraging them to do it now.”

Among those who testified in support of making the exchange a voter registration agency was Celia Reyes-Martinez, state director for Mi Familia Vota Education Fund. Many Latinos do not have health insurance and will be able to get it through the health exchange. Reyes-Martinez said outreach to provide people with both health insurance and voter information through the exchange will be critical.

“Every year, millions of Americans visit their local DMV or public assistance agencies and get registered to vote. For the last 20 years, the government has been offering voter registration applications in tandem with drivers license and food stamp applications. It’s working. An estimated 140 million Americans have taken advantage of this public service,” she said.

Now she said people applying for health benefits should also be offered the opportunity to register to vote.

In a written statement, Myung Oak Kim, spokeswoman for the exchange, said that the opinion from the Secretary of State’s office was clear that the exchange is not a state agency and “is not directly providing public benefits to Colorado residents.

“We fully support the nonpartisan mission of the NVRA though, and are taking steps to help all Coloradans register to vote.

“The Connect for Health Colorado website and shopping process will include options for consumers to use the Colorado Secretary of State’s Go Vote Colorado website, as well as including voter registration information in our resource materials and training manuals.”

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