The Affordable Care Act and Voting Rights: Good Medicine for the Future of our Democracy

Posted on 12/08/2014 @ 04:31 PM

Tags: Voting Rights, Healthcare

By Joanna E. Cuevas Ingram
Originally published in Huffington Post: Click here to read

On the heels of the midterm elections this November, many voting rights scholars, analysts and commentators opined on the multiple barriers placed in front of voters this election, particularly the heavy burden borne by many voters of color. Many recently enacted restrictive voting laws only increased confusion and further limited the opportunities of otherwise eligible voters to participate.

Appallingly, since striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed restrictive voting laws to go into effect in Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas, despite a lower court’s 2014 finding that the new restrictive voter I.D. law in Texas was racially motivated, purposefully discriminatory and tantamount to a twenty-first century poll tax.

Yet, there is another form of voter disenfranchisement that impacts more low-income voters, young people, seniors, African American and Latina/o voters than all of the recent voting restrictions, combined: the failure of the federal government to adequately comply with its own law -- the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Over the last 20 years, the NVRA has enabled millions of Americans to register to vote by requiring voter registration services at public assistance offices within each state.

When our federal government provides public access to an application for basic health insurance and public assistance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and it fails to provide equal access to adequate voter registration services in the same transaction, however, the federal government may be operating in violation of the NVRA.

An estimated 42 million uninsured Americans who lacked health insurance in 2013 have new opportunities to enroll through the ACA. However, if you were to apply for health insurance over the phone today from one of the federally-run health exchanges in one of 27 states, including Florida, Ohio, North Carolina or Texas, you would probably not receive any voter registration services.

If you were to apply online at HealthCare.gov or via paper application, you might be asked whether you want to register to vote, but the question would not include the statutorily-required language or disclosures under the NVRA. Currently, applicants must also go through the burdensome process of downloading and printing a 25- page document, filling out the voter registration application by hand, and mailing it to the appropriate state election officials.

The Civil Rights Committee for the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA), led by LatinoJustice PRLDEF and MALDEF, sent a letter to the White House on November 7, calling for immediate action from President Obama, urging him to direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to bring the federally-run health exchanges into full compliance with the NVRA.

Among other obligations, NHLA notes that the NVRA would require federally-run exchanges to:

  • Distribute voter registration application forms;
  • Ask applicants, in writing, whether they would like to register to vote or update their voter registration address;
  • Inform applicants, in writing: 1) that no one may interfere with their right to register to vote; 2) or infringe their right to privacy while registering; and, 3) or interfere with their right to choose a political party;
  • Assist applicants in completing the voter registration application form with the same degree of assistance provided for completing the health benefits application form, including providing language assistance; and
  • Accept completed voter registration application forms and submit them to appropriate state officials within 10 days of receipt or within 5 days if the last voting registration day is 5 days away.

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that only 58.7 percent of adult Latina/o U.S. citizens were registered to vote in 2012. Given that more than 10.2 million uninsured Latina/os in the U.S. now have new opportunities to apply for publicly-subsidized health insurance coverage and public assistance programs through the ACA health benefit exchanges, ensuring compliance with the NVRA can only be good medicine for the future of our democracy.

Twitter: @LJPJoanna

Joanna Cuevas Ingram works with LatinoJustice PRLDEF (LJP) on a range of prgrams such as the Latinas at Work (LAW) initiative. LatinoJustice PRLDEF is nonprofit civil rights organization, based in New York, works to improve political, economic, social, and educational equality for Latin@s. A graduate of U.C. Davis School of Law admitted to practice in California, Mrs. Cuevas Ingram’s work is published in the Harvard Latino Law Review, North Carolina Law Review and Daily Journal; her work has also been featured in Immigration Prof Blog, the L.A. Times, Sacramento Bee and San José Mercury News.

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