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Advocates call for Shapiro to extend automatic voter registration to social service agencies

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
April 7, 2024

Voter registration at Pennsylvania driver’s license centers soared after Gov. Josh Shapiro announced last year that eligible voters would automatically be registered while applying for a license or state ID card.

The change is a simple and effective step to get more eligible Pennsylvanians onto the voter rolls, voting rights advocates say. Registrations increased by 66% since Shapiro’s order in September compared with a similar period two years ago, according to data published by the state elections office.

While that’s a “huge step” for democracy, automatically registering only people who drive excludes historically disenfranchised groups who face the toughest barriers to voting, advocates say. And records show that while the state is required by federal law to encourage public assistance recipients to register, the number of applications via social service agencies has been on a downward trend for the last decade.

“It’s not easy to get registered to vote in the commonwealth for certain segments of the population,” Kadida Kenner, chief executive officer at the New Pennsylvania Project, said. “If we truly believe in a democracy in which all people are represented … we need to do everything we possibly can to make it more convenient for people to be part of this process.”

The deadline to register to vote in the April 23 primary in Pennsylvania is Monday.

Motor-voter

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), commonly known as the motor-voter law, aimed to boost voter registration by requiring states to offer opportunities to register at motor vehicle offices. 

And because the 1993 law’s drafters recognized that many low-income people don’t drive, they also required, in Section 7 of the measure, that states offer voter registration at public assistance offices. 

Jennifer Garman, director of government affairs at Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said the Section 7 requirements are important because people with disabilities and people of color are statistically more likely to live in poverty, and people living in poverty are less likely to participate in elections. 

Indeed, that very goal angered opponents of the bill. “Motor Voter, with its mandatory registration of welfare and entitlement recipients, will result in the registration of millions of welfare recipients, illegal aliens, and taxpayer funded entitlement recipients,” warned then-U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, during the congressional debate over the measure. “They’ll win.”

Garman and others said Pennsylvania could be doing more and say they have been pushing for Pennsylvania to implement automatic voter registration for social services programs such as Medicaid. 

“It’s something that we will continue to bring to this administration with the hope of finding a solution,” Garman said.

A federal judge last month dismissed a lawsuit by two dozen conservative Pennsylvania lawmakers who claimed ballot access initiatives by President Joe Biden and Shapiro usurped the state Legislature’s authority to direct federal elections in the commonwealth.

Asked why Shapiro’s Sept. 19 executive order directing PennDOT to implement an opt-out system for voter registration did not include the social service agencies also covered by the NVRA, a spokesman did not directly answer the question.

“Governor Shapiro has made it clear that voter participation is key to strengthening our democracy — and that’s why he took action to implement Automatic Voter Registration, a commonsense step to securely streamline voter registration and enhance election security,” spokesman Manuel Bonder told the Capital-Star last month.  

“The Shapiro Administration is committed to ensuring free and fair elections and enabling every eligible voter to make their voice heard,” Bonder said in a statement “and we will continue working to make government operate more efficiently for all Pennsylvanians.”

Boom and bust

Data published by the Pennsylvania Department of State shows that while voter registrations have grown significantly over the last decade, the number of applications made via public assistance agencies has declined sharply. 

In 2014, applications received through agencies such as county assistance offices and disability services agencies accounted for about 14% of all voter registration applications. But in 2022, that share had dropped to less than 2%, according to the Department of State’s reports on voter registration published each June. That’s a decrease of about 41,000 applications.

While the assistance agencies required to offer voter registration services include a range of state and county offices, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) accounts for the largest share of Section 7 registration applications, state data shows.

A spokesperson said DHS remains in compliance with the NVRA’s Section 7 requirements and works closely with the Department of State to ensure it continues to comply. 

Voter registration services are automatically offered online, over the phone, or in person for all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Medicaid application, renewal, semi-annual reporting, and change of address requests, spokesperson Brandon Cwalina told the Capital-Star.

“During client discussions about voter registration, DHS staff assure clients that their desire to accept or decline registering to vote will not affect their eligibility for public assistance or the amount of assistance they may be eligible to receive,” Cwalina said, adding that caseworkers and staff are required to take training on voter registration annually.

Cwalina said the decline in the number of registration applications through public assistance agencies is attributable in part to the suspension during the pandemic of a requirement for Medicaid recipients to reapply annually. That requirement was reinstated in May.

The roll-out of online voter registration in 2015 also played a role in the decline, Cwalina said. In 2017, DHS’s online COMPASS portal was integrated with the Department of State’s interface, allowing for seamless online voter registration.

Varying records

In 2012 two non-partisan community organizations engaged in voter registration in minority communities sued Pennsylvania officials, claiming that they were failing to provide voter registration services at public assistance agencies and violating the NVRA requirements. 

The plaintiffs, the Black Political Empowerment Project and ACTION United, said an investigation showed that Pennsylvania public assistance offices fallen short of NVRA Section 7 requirements for years. 

The groups found that only 4,200 people submitted voter registration applications through state assistance programs in 2009 and 2010, according to data reported by the state to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. That was a 93% decrease from 1995 and 1996, when the NVRA first came into effect, the lawsuit claimed. 

In August 2012, the state entered a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs to ensure compliance with the NVRA. The agreement expired in 2015, the year registration via social service agencies began the downward trend.

A reporting project by News From The States, part of the Capital-Star’s parent organization States Newsroom, found that compliance with the NVRA varies from state to state. 

During the 2021-22 election cycle, only 1,222 Iowa voter registration applications came via public assistance programs, according to figures reported by the state to the Election Assistance Commission. That represented just 0.1% of Iowa’s total new voter registration applications. The equivalent figure for the average state has been around 3%, according to a recent report.

Voting advocates said one likely factor is the way that Iowa’s Department of Health and Human Services fulfills its requirements under NVRA. In a renewal mailer sent by HHS to a Medicaid recipient in October and obtained by States Newsroom, the voter registration opportunity appears on the ninth page of the 11-page mailer, and as the twelfth and final bullet point in a section titled “Rights and Responsibilities.” 

It instructs applicants who wish to register to vote to visit a website to print a voter registration form that must be printed out and mailed to an election office, although no mailing address is provided. 

In contrast, Massachusetts saw a five-fold increase in voter registration through social service agencies in the 2021-22 election cycle.

The striking increase came after Massachusetts implemented an automatic voter registration system that includes Medicaid applicants. Any eligible voter in the state who applies for Medicaid is automatically added to the rolls, unless they opt out.

Opportunities

Former Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar said implementing automatic voter registration for PennDOT was a relatively simple matter of changing the driver’s license application to include an opt-out rather than an opt-in question about registering.

 Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar on October 27, 2020 (Commonwealth Media Services)

Twenty-two states have some form of automatic registration. Motor vehicle agencies are the most common because they already have some level of integration with state election offices and they also require people to provide much of the same information about residency and citizenship needed to register to vote, Boockvar said. 

Boockvar, who is now president of Athena Strategies and working on voting rights and election security issues across the country, said Medicaid is the next most common service to include automatic voter registration. Seven states — Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon — and the District of Columbia have implemented automatic registration through Medicaid.

“There’s a lot of good models, and I would love to see Pennsylvania be next on that list, because it does require … the collection of necessary data that is already in place. It’s clearly hitting a constituent base that is historically tough to reach by other means,” Boockvar said.

And reducing friction in the process — for both applicants and agency staff — is the key to getting people to register to vote.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that process matters a lot,” Boockvar said, noting a close examination of NVRA data shows outlier counties that register more applicants than larger neighbors. “Automatic voter registration is so much more effective because it doesn’t rely on all these local agency workers.”

Likewise, a process that doesn’t add to the burden of public assistance applicants yields more voter registration applications.

“If you’re out of work, if you’re disabled, if you’ve got a family to support and all you care about is getting support for your family, and it’s a 30-page application and there’s buried somewhere, something about registering to vote, it’s understandably not going to feel like a priority,” Boockvar said. 

Kenner, of the New Pennsylvania Project, said the goal of registering the 14% of Pennsylvania’s voting-age population who aren’t on the rolls is one that should transcend political parties.

“We have an opportunity here to ensure that that is one of the key questions when you go into an office to seek social services, because those closest to the pain need to be closest to the power and their power is found at the ballot box,” Kenner said.

This article includes reporting by Zachary Roth, National Democracy Reporter for States Newsroom, the parent organization of the Capital-Star.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.