Did Team Obama cave to GOP on registering voters?

Get Covered America volunteers Cynae Derose (L) and Jalisa Hinkle talk with Daniel Glover about the Affordable Care Act - also known as Obamacare - while canvassing a Chicago, Illinois neighborhood September 7, 2013.
Get Covered America volunteers Cynae Derose (L) and Jalisa Hinkle talk with Daniel Glover about the Affordable Care Act - also known as Obamacare - while canvassing a Chicago, Illinois neighborhood September 7, 2013.
John Gress/Reuters

Is the Obama administration caving to Republicans by paring back efforts to help people register to vote when they sign up for Obamacare starting next week?

Existing law requires that when people sign up for public assistance, they be given the chance to register to vote. But after the GOP kicked up a fuss about the idea that Obamacare might be used to add new voters to the rolls, the administration may now do so little to help people register that it could end up violating the law.

Making registration—not just voting—more difficult has emerged in recent years as a key piece of the GOP’s effort to erect barriers to the ballot box. In Florida, North Carolina, and other states, Republicans have sought to make registration harder. And in April, Rep. Charles Boustany, a Louisiana Republican, wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services raising concerns about a draft version of the application to sign up for the Obamacare healthcare exchanges, which asked applicants if they’d like to register to vote.

A Health Department official responded to Boustany by noting that the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as “Motor Voter,” requires that states offer that chance to anyone signing up for public assistance or at the DMV.

But the devil may be in the details.

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, which is handling the roll-out of the exchanges, told MSNBC that applications to join the exchanges will include the sentence:

If you want to register to vote, you can complete a voter registration form at www.usa.gov.

That address takes applicants to a general government assistance site that includes no information about voting on its homepage, requiring people to use the search tool. Experts in designing such systems say that kind of multi-step approach is an ineffective way of getting large numbers of people to register.

Additional components of the voter-registration assistance appear to have fallen by the wayside. According to the since-withdrawn report, as described Tuesday by Mother Jones, CMS had been mulling training the Obamacare “navigators” who will help people sign up for the exchanges to also help them register to vote. Asked whether that would happen, a CMS spokesperson pledged to respond but did not immediately do so.

Because the Motor Voter law isn’t specific, different states take different approaches to allowing people to register when they’re signing up for public assistance—some more hands-on, some less. For instance, some states train DMV employees to actively offer people voter registration forms, while others just leave piles of forms within sight of applicants. But limiting voter registration assistance to the single sentence that CMS says it plans to include would rank on the very most passive end of the scale.

In fact, Gerry Hebert, a veteran voting lawyer and a former top official at the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said doing so could run afoul of the Motor Voter law. “It may be tested in the courts, because it’s not clear that it does meet the requirements,” Hebert told MSNBC.

It’s not uncommon for states to be accused of failing to meet the Motor Voter law’s requirements. “You have seen a lot of states that have been sued for failing to provide voter registration opportunities,” Hebert added.

The prospect that Obamacare could be used as a voter registration tool plays into some of the darkest fears of the GOP about the law. In 1993, the Republican strategist Bill Kristol argued in an influential memo that the party should staunchly oppose the Clinton administration’s health-reform bill because if it succeeded, it would cement Democrats’ status as the “generous protector of middle-class interests.” In other words, conservatives’ ultimate concern—about both the Clinton measure and Obamacare—was that they would work too well, helping to turn previously disaffected Americans into a new bloc of Democratic voters. It’s easy to see how the sight of people getting help registering to vote at the same time that they’re signing up for Obamacare could exacerbate that fear.

The administration may be eager to avoid giving the impression that it’s backtracking. After a report last month by liberal groups—since taken down without explanation—raised concerns that the administration could be backing down on offering voter registration help, a senior administration official told Talking Points Memo this week that voter registration assistance would occur as planned. But those comments did not contain details about how robust the assistance would be.