As members of Congress continue to argue over the Affordable Care Act, one impact of the law on partisan politics has largely been left out of the conversation: voter registration.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the "Motor Voter" law, requires government agencies to offer individuals the opportunity to vote—and that includes the newly opened Obamacare exchanges.
That gives some Republicans one more reason to oppose the law. If low-income applicants lean Democratic, the argument goes, the exchanges could boost the party's voter rolls.
"The practice raises longstanding suspicions on the right that the ACA exchanges are designed for political as well as regulatory purposes," said Tim Miller, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has been characteristically blunt on the subject. "The purpose of Obamacare got nothing to do with your health, and nothing to do with your insurance," he said. "It's about building a permanent, undefeatable, always-funded Democrat majority."
In Washington, Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in March, expressing concerns about the linking of ACA insurance applications to voter registration.
"While the health care law requires that government agencies collect vast information about Americans' personal lives, it does not give your Department an interest in whether individual Americans choose to vote," he wrote.
Boustany's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet voter-rights advocates maintain that voter registration is not a partisan issue. "Those new voters could be up for grabs by all parties," said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office. "I think it's very unreasonable to assume someone voting for the first time is necessarily going to be voting one way or the other."
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, voter registration must be offered on the ACA exchange application because of the Medicaid eligibility determination. To be in compliance, CMS says they are including language on the paper and online applications that says, "If you want to register to vote, you can complete a voter registration form at usa.gov." States that have opted to create their own exchanges are able to develop their own applications and choose how they enforce the National Voter Registration Act requirement.
California was the first state to decide to enforce voter registration requirements through the ACA. "Nearly 5.8 million Californians who are otherwise eligible to vote are not currently registered," said Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, who authored the bill enforcing voter registration. "Covered California [the state's exchange] provides a unique opportunity to reduce the number of unregistered Californians and increase participation."
Five other states have also publicly announced their intention to enforce the National Voter Registration Act: Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, according to Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for ACLU. The six states are solidly blue, but Rho says that divide began with the broader decision of whether to establish a state-based exchange. States that opted to create their own tend to lean Democratic.
However, Rho maintains that the voter-registration element is a nonpartisan issue. "We should all agree that voters should be given the opportunity to participate in the political process," she said. "Why not get at voters when they're accessing the system in large numbers?"
Successfully implementing voter-registration requirements into the ACA exchanges could give up to 68 million additional eligible voters the chance to register, according to Demos, a left-leaning policy organization.
Overall, more than 250 million people have registered to vote through the National Voter Registration Act between 1995, when the law went into effect, and 2010, Demos reports. To put that in perspective, an estimated 126 million people voted in the 2012 election, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
"It's a really significant opportunity to expand voting registration," Rho said, noting that about one-third of uninsured individuals are not registered to vote.
Said Murphy: "One thing we all should be in favor of—whether Democrat, Republican or independent—is we should make voting more accessible, not less."
This article appears in the October 15, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.