Biden ordered federal agencies to boost voter participation. He gets their plans this week
• Sep 22, 2021
Federal agencies this week will submit plans to the White House on ways to increase voter registration and participation as the deadline approaches for one of President Joe Biden’s key voting rights initiatives.
The White House has been tight-lipped on the specific plans that federal agencies are developing, but voting rights advocates say the most meaningful policy change would be enabling people to register to vote when they use federal websites to apply for student financial aid or health insurance.
Biden’s sweeping executive order in March instructed the head of every federal agency to submit within 200 days “a strategic plan outlining the ways identified under this review that the agency can promote voter registration and voter participation.” That deadline will be reached on Thursday.
Sarah Brannon, a managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, one of the organizations that consulted with the administration on the executive order, said any time a federal agency interacts directly with a member of the public provides a voter registration opportunity.
“State DMVs have been registering people to vote in the tens of millions since the late ’90s,” she said, referring to departments of motor vehicles. “There’s no reason the federal government can’t contribute to that process.”
Brannon said that she has not heard specific details about what will be included in the plans submitted by the agencies this week, but based on her conversations with administration officials she expects proposals that are a combination of concrete actions and aspirational goals.
“The agencies have to think about the best way to incorporate this into their existing programs,” she said.
White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said the recommendations that agencies will send to the White House this week are a step in a longer process aimed at using the tools of the federal government to increase voter access and participation.
“The deadline this week is an important step in implementing the President’s historic executive order, but we don’t expect the reports to represent the final word on each agency’s commitments,” he said in an email to McClatchy.
“In the months to come, we will work with agencies to further build out their capacity to get relevant information out to the public, help eligible voters better understand their opportunities for engagement, and facilitate participation in the electoral process,” Bates said.
Brannon pointed to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which roughly 18 million people filled out in the 2019-2020 school year, as an opportunity for the Department of Education to provide an easy way to register millions of young voters.
“It’s an opportunity for people to register to vote when they turn 18 and then an opportunity to register to vote again when they interact with the program the second or third time,” she said.
“People are more inclined to take a few minutes to go through the process to register to vote when they’re already filling out paperwork,” Brannon said.
Voting rights advocates said similar action could be taken for HealthCare.gov, the federal health exchange that millions of people use to purchase insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
“If voter registration was integrated there that could reach so many people. That would be the biggest impact,” said Lisa Danetz, an advisor on voting rights at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Danetz noted that many states offer to register people to vote as part of the application process for Medicaid, a system the federal government could imitate with the federal health exchange.
Danetz also pointed to the Indian Health Service as the agency which interacts with the most Native Americans, a population which lags in voter registration. The agency could provide voter registration services, she said, noting that Biden’s order explicitly states increasing Native American participation in elections as a goal.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should offer to register new citizens at naturalization ceremonies, both advocates said.
The agency’s current policies allow organizations such as the League of Women Voters to provide that service at ceremonies, but that does not happen at every event and USCIS faces no obligation to ensure it happens, the advocates said.
The White House in March linked Biden’s order to the historical struggle for voting rights, issuing it on the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and invoking the civil rights marchers who fought for voting rights in Alabama.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act prompted motor vehicle departments and other state agencies to offer voter registration services. It empowered federal agencies to take similar steps, but previous administrations have not made that a priority until Biden’s executive order, Brannon said.
The plans being submitted by federal agencies come at a time when the Senate has stalled on voting rights legislation and Republican-led states have moved forward with new voting restrictions.
Shannon Golden, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, called Biden’s order “nothing more than a Democrat power grab.” Kansas, which has a GOP-controlled legislature, is one of 18 states to enact new voter restrictions since January.
“Election integrity is one of the most critical issues we face heading into the mid-terms and beyond, but unfortunately, Joe Biden and Democrats are seizing any opportunity they can to tip the scale in their favor,” Golden said.
Voting rights advocates said Biden’s order would not be a substitute for congressional action on the issue. Federal agencies can expand opportunities to register, but that won’t help voters overcome other state-level hurdles, advocates said.
“If you’re looking for the executive branch to go it alone to protect voting rights, there are limits to what can be done,” said Rick Hasen, co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
But voting rights legislation, which has been endorsed by the president, faces a difficult path in the evenly divided Senate because of opposition from Republicans.
Corey Goldstone, a spokesman for the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, said the impact from Biden’s order could be significant if agencies use all of the tools at their disposal.
“The White House should not put the onus one hundred percent on Congress. There are things they can do absent congressional action to streamline access,” he said.
Goldstone said the Department of Housing and Urban Development has untapped potential to increase voter registration because of the number of Americans it serves.
“With the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they can encourage state and local housing authorities to make available voter registration forms and vote-by-mail applications,” Goldstone said.
“These are agencies that are uniquely positioned to interact with historically marginalized communities in many different categories,” Goldstone said.
You can read the full article by Bryan Lowry here.