Federal agencies lag in registering voters despite Biden executive order, advocates say
‘We want them to do this more quickly, and make it more of a priority,’ an advocate said
(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus)
Within weeks of taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order — hailed by voter advocates as potentially transformative — that for the first time committed the U.S. government to registering new voters at federal agencies.
But just over two years later, most of the 10 agencies examined in a recent report had made only minimal progress toward meeting the order’s goals. That’s raising concerns that, without urgent action, the administration could squander a rare chance to leverage the reach of the federal government, the nation’s largest employer, to expand access to the ballot.
“We want them to do this more quickly, and make it more of a priority,” said Leslie Proll, a senior director of the voting rights program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which led the coalition that produced the report. “It is going to take time — we’re just trying to stress the urgency around this, because it’s so meaningful.”
Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Accessing to Voting could provide a huge jolt to registration rates if carried out effectively.
The report’s authors, a broad coalition of voting and civil rights groups, as well as other progressive organizations, estimate that if every federal agency created a “high-quality” opportunity for people to register, as the order urges them to do, they could collectively add around 3.5 million new voters to the rolls each year, or around 7 million every election cycle.
That would represent over 20% of all new registrations that occurred during the 2019-2020 cycle, the most recent for which figures exist.
There are symbolic reasons, too, why the order’s impact could be far-reaching. By declaring that “it is the responsibility of the Federal Government to expand access to, and education about, voter registration,” it for the first time brings the U.S. government meaningfully into the voter registration process and sets down a marker for the future.
The order also represents an attempt by the Biden administration to push back against efforts in Republican-led states to erect barriers to voting, using one of the few levers it has at a time when major voting legislation has been stymied in Congress.
But time may be running out to realize the order’s full promise. The upcoming presidential election could make any progress, which in some areas requires working with state election officials, difficult next year. And by 2025, the government could be in the hands of a new administration that pulls back on enforcing the order or rescinds it outright.
In a series of letters sent to the Biden administration last year, U.S. House Republicans questioned whether federal agencies have the constitutional and legal authority to conduct voter registration, and they have signaled they plan to use control of the House to intensify that probe.
And in August, 15 Republican secretaries of state — including those for Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, and Tennessee — sent a letter of their own to the White House, asking Biden to reverse the order, which, they said, “will produce duplicate registrations, confuse citizens, and complicate the jobs of our county clerks and election officials.”
‘Missing a huge opportunity’
But a bigger problem than Republican opposition, advocates say, has been the relatively slow pace at which some agencies have implemented the order.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 transformed the registration process in the U.S. By requiring that state motor vehicle departments and public assistance agencies offer customers the chance to register to vote, the NVRA, sometimes known as “Motor Voter,” made getting on the rolls much easier and more convenient, especially for low-income people and racial minorities.
In the 2019-20 election cycle, nearly 40 percent of all voter registrations happened at motor vehicle departments, making it the most common registration method.
Biden’s order aimed to extend the logic of Motor Voter to the federal government. It directed federal agencies to come up with ways to expand Americans’ opportunities to register to vote, including by considering how to offer voter registration “in the course of activities or services that directly engage with the public” — just as motor vehicle departments offer voter registration to people obtaining or renewing a driver’s license.
And it contained specific provisions aimed at increasing access to registration among non-English speakers, veterans, Native Americans, people in federal prisons and other groups that are under-represented in the political process.
“Make no mistake, this is designed to get at low-income people and marginalized communities who are using (Veterans Affairs) services, healthcare.gov, naturalization ceremonies,” said Proll. “By the very nature of the work of the agency, you’re going to capture people who are otherwise not participating in the work of democracy.”
Some agencies receive high marks in the report. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Veterans Affairs both win praise for taking steps to designate some of their offices as official voter registration agencies under the NVRA, a designation that advocates say can help improve their effectiveness at registering voters.
And the Department of the Treasury has reached millions of people by adding information on voter registration to the taxpaying process.
By contrast, the Department of Education, which has contact with millions of young people through its student loan program, is said to be “missing a huge opportunity” by not including information about registration in the Student Aid Report, which students receive after applying for federal student loans. Around 18 million students, disproportionately non-white, applied for loans in the 2020-21 application cycle.
Shortly after the advocacy report came out, the department updated StudentAid.gov, which serves as an entry point for people looking into the student loan process, by adding a link to vote.gov, the federal government’s voter registration portal. But the linked text is in tiny font at the very bottom of the page, with no additional text to draw attention to it.
Advocates say that won’t get the same results as adding a link to the Student Aid Report. People read the SAR much more closely, since they’ve applied to receive it, and it contains specific, tailored information about what types of loans are available to them.
This kind of “active” outreach, voter registration experts say, which targets people who already are likely to be invested in the interaction, and which explicitly asks them whether they want to register, is much more effective than the kind of “passive” outreach typified by adding a link at the bottom of a homepage.
Laura Williamson, one of the report’s authors and the associate director of democracy at Demos, which works to expand access to voting and democracy, called the department’s move to add the link to StudentAid.gov “better than nothing — but not by much.”
“Even more concerning,” according to the report, is the department’s failure to date to fulfill a pledge, made in response to the order, to produce a toolkit with detailed guidance for colleges and universities on the most effective ways to offer voter registration. (The department did send a letter reminding schools that they’re required under the Higher Education Act to help students register, which advocates say was effective in beefing up compliance with the law.)
A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
Other agencies lagging
Of course, if the administration is sending people to vote.gov, it’s crucial that the site, which links visitors to state-specific registration information, is easy to use for everyone. The General Services Administration has made “modest progress” in improving vote.gov for people with disabilities and those who don’t speak English, according to the report, but “still has a long way to go.”
A fact sheet issued by the White House last month, days after the report appeared, noted that the site “is now accessible in twelve languages, with more translations coming online soon,” and pledged that GSA would continue working to improve it.
Proll stressed it’s important that the administration do more to make vote.gov a true “one-stop-shop” for registration. “I really view that as a centerpiece of this effort,” she said.
Also falling short, according to the report, is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, which through its naturalization program has direct and meaningful contact with hundreds of thousands of eligible but unregistered new citizens each year.
USCIS did send its 88 field offices a short letter reminding them of its existing policy — followed by some offices more than others — of inviting representatives from state and local government or nonprofit groups to register voters after naturalization ceremonies. But that alone “will not be nearly enough” to reach the order’s goals, according to the report.
In its fact sheet, the White House pledged that USCIS would go further, issuing new policy guidance to field offices, “including providing a clear roadmap for how to successfully partner with state and local election administration officials and nonpartisan organizations” to help new citizens register.
Advocates say new policy guidance would be a step in the right direction, but still might not be sufficient.
“I probably would have been seeking more,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who played a role in implementing the order when he served as White House senior policy advisor for democracy and voting rights. “It remains to be seen what the guidance is, and how forceful it is. There’s certainly more that USCIS could do.” (Levitt stressed that he was not speaking for the White House, which he left in December.)
Other agencies made stronger commitments, but have so far not done enough to meet them, advocates say. The Department of Health and Human Services pledged that its Administration for Community Living would connect seniors and people with disabilities to information on voter registration. It did launch a voting access hub, but it isn’t clear how users would find the page, which isn’t linked from ACL’s homepage.
Even more significantly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services promised to make it easier for the more than 8 million users of the federal health care exchange, healthcare.gov, to connect to voter registration services, which the report says would be a “transformative step.” But progress toward this goal, it finds, has been “very slow-moving.”
CMS, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, says it’s already helping people connect to registration services.
“After consumers apply for coverage, the Marketplace includes a callout about registering to vote if they need to and provides links to official resources from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission,” a CMS spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson added that the agency is working to ensure that voter registration services are more accessible to users of healthcare.gov, including by expanding the locations on the site that connect to vote.gov without needing to be logged in.
But Williamson, of Demos, said that’s not reassuring.
“If anything, it makes us more worried that CMS and HHS might miss this tremendous opportunity altogether,” Williamson said. “Dropping a link to vote.gov or the EAC’s website at the end of a long application process, or in small font at the bottom of a page full of information, is not providing meaningful access to voter registration opportunities.”
The issue of how much the health care exchanges should do to help people register to vote has flared before. After the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2013, Republicans expressed outrage that the law might help boost voter registration. The Obama administration ultimately made the registration opportunity so unobtrusive and ineffective that Demos charged it was violating the NVRA.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, too, made an “exemplary” commitment to facilitate voting for people in federal prisons who remain eligible to vote in their home state, the report found, creating a plan that would “significantly increase voting access” for this population.
But though BOP, which is part of the Department of Justice, has “issued some helpful materials,” it has been “very slow” to implement its pledge, according to the authors.
Donald Murphy, a BOP spokesman, noted several steps the agency has taken on voting, including developing a lesson plan, “Know Your Voting Rights,” that’s provided to all incoming inmates.
Also being urged to do more is the Indian Health Service, which provides health care to Native Americans, a group that has long faced some of the most powerful systemic barriers to voting. The report criticized IHS, which is part of HHS, for showing “no signs of follow-through” on a pledge to provide registration services at agency facilities, which advocates say could significantly increase access for Native populations.
But the White House fact sheet that appeared days after the report committed the agency to creating “high-quality” voter registration pilot programs at five IHS offices by the end of the year — which advocates said would be a major step forward.
Agencies exercise new muscles
Another key area where advocates want to see the administration move faster is in getting federal agencies officially designated as voter registration agencies under the NVRA.
The designation, which agencies work with the state in which they’re located to gain, can improve registration services by providing training for staff and tracking of registration rates, among other benefits. But when Biden took office, no federal agency had ever received the designation.
Biden’s order aimed to prod agencies into action by urging them to accept NVRA designation from states, sending the message that they’re expected to begin working toward being designated. But over two years later, only Interior and Veterans Affairs have made real progress.
Interior has completed the designation process for two Native American universities it controls, one in Kansas and one in New Mexico, while the VA is working with Kentucky, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to designate several medical facilities in those states.
The Small Business Administration is said to be working with several states on designation, though things appear less far along.
Because the process is new for both federal agencies and states, it’s not a shock that things have moved slowly, advocates say. But they add that now is the time to pick up the pace.
“We have been a little disappointed because we have not had much success in this space,” said Sarah Brannon, managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project, and another co-author of the report. “We are hoping that in the next year, more is going to be accomplished than has been accomplished in the last year.”
Still, the designations already completed, as well as those in the works, are likely to be important in offering a model that spurs other agencies to follow.
“Every single one of these designations represents new muscles that agencies are learning to exercise,” said Levitt, the former White House official. “I, too, would like more new muscles faster. But the power of (offering) proof-of-concept, to show, ‘Hey, this isn’t hard; hey, it works, it’s pretty smooth,’ is tremendous in getting long-term healthier results.”
More broadly, Levitt added, by integrating registration opportunities into different services that a diverse range of people already receive, the administration-wide response to Biden’s order has offered a powerful example of effective government — one that can help bolster faith in democracy.
“This is a program that has benefited members of tribal nations, it has benefited veterans, it has benefited taxpayers, it has benefited community health patients, it has benefited people who speak languages other than English all over the country, it has benefited members of the military, it has benefited people with convictions who are involved in the justice system, it has benefited people getting passports, and on and on and on,” Levitt said.
“And it’s easy to lose the field in the details. But it really has been an all-out government effort, and I don’t think anyone believes it should rest where it is.”
Williamson, of Demos, said fully accomplishing the goals of the order is part of fulfilling a fundamental duty owed by government to citizens. (Of course, it’s a duty that often still goes unrecognized.)
“We are a developed democracy, and in a developed democracy the government has a responsibility to make sure all its eligible people are registered and can vote,” Williamson said. “This is the right thing to do in a democracy that’s committed to full enfranchisement for all eligible people.”
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