By: Jean Merl
The nearly 3.8 million Californians who have applied for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act will get help registering to vote under an agreement reached with several civil rights groups, officials announced Monday.
The agreement heads off a potentially costly and time-consuming lawsuit and helps see that a sizable chunk of state residents can complete or update their registration in time for the June 3 primary election, advocates of the settlement said.
It also brings the nation’s most populous state into complicance with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires that certain state offices provide clients with voter registration opportunities.
Besides Covered California, the organization that administers the state health exchange under the federal legislation unofficially known as Obamacare, the Department of Motor Vehicles and state offices that provide aid to low-income mothers and the disabled, among others, are required to provide voter registration services to clients.
The agreement calls for the state to mail voter registration cards to everyone who applied for insurance through the state exchange. It also requires that the cards and other registration assistance be made available to all applicants by the next annual open enrollment period, which will begin in October.
The settlement resulted from negotiations between the state and the ACLU of California and other groups representing the League of Women Voters of California, Young Invincibles and several individuals.
“Many eligible voters fail to register due to lack of access and opportunity,” Jennifer A. Waggoner, League president, said in a statement announcing the settlement. “Offering voter registration to the millions of people enrolling in healthcare is a simple step toward reaching out to them.”
Raul Macias, a voting rights attorney for the ACLU, said California was the first state to add its healthcare exchange to the list of services offering voter registration assistance but failed to fully follow through when the exchange opened for business.
Though he said the organizations were sympathetic to the health exchange’s workload and continued to negotiate with its officials, it was not until they served the state with a legal notice earlier this month that things started to happen.
“We’re excited that it’s going to happen and happen in time for the primary,” Macias said of the upcoming registration mailing project.
A spokeswoman for Covered California said the exchange already had taken “some interim steps,” including providing voter registration information and links to the secretary of State’s office on its website.
“However,” spokeswoman Anne Gonzales said, “in the first few months of our start-up, our resources were primarily dedicated to getting the new insurance exchange up and running.”
“We’ve always understood our obligations and now we are happy to have a plan … and to work toward full compliance” with the law, Gonzales said.
In addition to mailings to those who apply for Obamacare for the current year, the exchange will take several steps to be ready for the fall open enrollment period for 2015.
Voter cards will be included in all paper applications and a voter registration application will be provided for those signing up for health insurance online; help also will be available from those assisting applicants with their insurance choices, Gonzales said.