Facing lawsuit, Covered California ramps up voter help

Facing a deadline of early next week for a voting rights lawsuit in federal court, California's health insurance exchange appears to have agreed to send out almost 4 million voter registration forms to those who applied for health insurance since October 1.

The key word, though, is 'appears.'

The groups that threatened the lawsuit believe a settlement with Covered California to a fight that's been going on for months (and one we first reported last December) is forthcoming. But a spokesman for the agency on Friday refused to comment on the issue, even refusing to confirm a legal settlement until documents would be made public days later.

"We felt they had to be prodded," said Trudy Schafer of the League of Women Voters of California. "They really have talked about it a long time, without results."

The fight began in late 2013, when several groups insisted that Covered California -- the state-run agency implementing the Affordable Care Act -- must provide information and assistance for health insurance enrollees who also wanted to register to vote.

They had the backing of Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who on May 15, 2013 designated the new health agency a "voter registration agency" under federal law (PDF). But by year's end, Covered California told the voting rights groups that it needed more time because it was fully consumed with health care enrollment.

On March 5, the frustrated groups sent a letter invoking a new, and strict, deadline: 20 days or a federal lawsuit, given the fact Californians will go to the polls on June 3... and tens of thousands, or more, who would have wanted to register to vote were not asked by the health insurance exchange.

"It is time for Covered California to take the responsibility," Schafer said.

On Thursday, agency executive director Peter Lee offered a brief -- but general -- statement of support for voter registration, in remarks after a closed session of the Covered California board of directors.

"We think we're making very good progress on building a comprehensive system to make sure that all applicants have the option to register to vote," said Lee.

But a comprehensive system -- one that would include a more robust online voter registration system -- does not appear to be likely. Instead, Lee suggested... and voting rights groups confirmed... that Covered California will likely send out paper registration forms to everyone who filled out a health insurance application since Oct. 1, the start of enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. Based on Lee's report to the agency's board on Thursday, that would total some 3.8 million Californians.

The voting rights groups point out that even if only a fraction of those Californians choose to register to vote, it could put a significant dent in the state's eligible-but-unregistered electorate.

"We have some 8 million unregistered voters, eligible people," said Schafer. "This is a wonderful opportunity to get the word out."

Whether the agency will sign off on a settlement to the potential lawsuit -- and just how long it will take the agency to make that public -- were unclear as of Friday evening.


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