Two of the fiercest political disputes between Washington and the states could soon come together in legal fights that involve tying the new federal health care overhaul to voter registration. Every state is preparing to open a health insurance exchange by Oct. 1. Whether these new agencies will offer voter registration as well as health care information is emerging as a potential fault line that could further divide states from one another and from Washington. The Obama administration and voting rights advocates say there’s no question the agencies must offer voter registration under federal law. But Republicans in Congress and in some states are pushing back, and even some election law experts aren’t so sure the question has an easy answer. So far, just three states have officially said they’ll link the exchanges and voter registration. But whether the rest will – or will be required to under federal law – is an open question that will likely lead to court battles and at least a temporary patchwork approach nationwide. “I don’t expect it to go evenly and don’t expect it to go well, initially,” said R. Doug Lewis, head of the National Association of Election Officials. “There’s not universal agreement about what can be done here, as you can imagine.”
The issue hinges on the interpretation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the “Motor Voter Act,” and whether it applies to the new exchanges. The measure requires states to offer voter registration at government offices, most commonly departments of motor vehicles. With the exchanges, which are in some ways a new kind of government office, some are questioning whether the law applies to them.
At stake is a new opportunity for millions of Americans to register to vote. Just 65 percent of eligible Americans over 18 are registered to vote now.
While most people have gone to a motor vehicle agency to get a driver’s license, it is not required, and fewer young people have been applying for the driving privilege each year.
As many as 24 million Americans are expected to get insurance through the exchanges, meaning the agencies could be a potent new tool in voter registration.