A coalition of more than 100 civil rights and advocacy organizations is accusing the Biden administration of falling short on its “visionary” commitment to step up voter registration and that the failure to shore up voting rights is disproportionately hurting non-white voters.
In an early March letter to President Biden and 10 federal agencies, the coalition cited Census data showing wide discrepancies in voter registration between white voters and voters of color.
According to the data, 77% of eligible voters who are white are registered to vote. That compares to just 69% among African American eligible voters, and 64% for Asian Americans, 63% among Native Americans and 61% among Latinos. And in the last presidential election, 63 million people otherwise eligible to vote were not registered.
Executive Order 14019
Within weeks of taking office and on the anniversary of the 1965 historic “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights through Selma, Alabama, Biden issued executive order 14019, “Promoting Access to Voting.” The move was intended to expand voter registration opportunities in federal agency programs.
Two years later, at a March 2 press briefing, members of the coalition offered a new report, “Strengthening Democracy: A Progress Report on Federal Agency Action to Promote Access to Voting,” assessing the work of 10 federal agencies in implementing Biden’s order.
Three are “on the right track,” the report found, but “most have either made minimal progress on their initial strong commitments or have left important opportunities on the table.”
Were they to “integrate a high-quality voter registration opportunity for the people they serve,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, of the Leadership Conference, those agencies “could collectively generate an additional 3.5 million voter registration applications per year.”
She continued, “While state after state imposes more barriers to the ballot, a divided Congress gives us little hope for restoring and strengthening the voting rights we so desperately need… Not since the Jim Crow era have we seen such opposition to freely casting and accurately counting our ballots.”
McCurdy added that “with legislation stalled for the foreseeable future, we are looking to the Biden-Harris administration to do everything within their executive power to protect the right to vote.”
Registering Native American voters
Jacqueline De Leon of the Native American Rights Fund noted Native American voters are “uniquely situated to benefit from this executive order.”
Although “Native Americans do not regularly interact with state agencies, such as the DMV, where many Americans are provided with the most meaningful registration opportunity,” she said, the situation is different when it comes to federal agencies “in a government-to-government capacity and in fulfillment of their treaty rights.”
The Department of the Interior was one of just three agencies of the 10 covered in the report deemed “on the right track” for providing high-quality voter registration services at two universities it operates.
At the other end of the spectrum, Indian Health Services was rated “falling behind” for showing “no signs of follow-through” on its initial commitment to offer registration to its clients: “2.5 million of the most underserved Native Americans yearly,” De Leon said.
De Leon commended the Department of Veteran Affairs’ pilot programs in Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania and its nonpartisan information about registration and elections on its website. Treasury, by boosting voter registration access at IRS tax preparation clinics and training staff in the process, also got an “on the right track” designation.
Meeting eligible voters where they’re at
“One of the single most impactful actions that the Biden administration can take under this executive order,” said Laura Williamson, of Demos, is for the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the voter registration element of its website healthcare.gov. Millions of people use the website annually, she said.”
For these people to be able to vote, she said, “is integral to the agency’s mission. HHS itself has found that voting is a social determinant of health.” Although HHS initially vowed to integrate voter registration into its site, Williamson said, “that was well over a year ago and it hasn’t happened. It must.”
Along similar lines and “critical to the entire executive order,” she said, is the General Services Administration’s vote.gov website.
Despite the GSA being specifically singled out in the executive order to modernize and improve the site, which many other agencies use in their voter registration efforts, “unfortunately, it’s just not all that user-friendly, or fully accessible to voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency.”
The Justice Department’s Marshal Service, which oversees people in federal pretrial custody, and Bureau of Prisons have both made “modest initial efforts” to ensure that eligible people in their custody have access to registration and voting, Williamson said, “but both agencies have more work to do to meet the mandate. Voting is a right, not a privilege.”
Terry Ao Minnis, of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, echoed De Leon’s comments about Indian Health Services, one of three agencies deemed “falling behind.”
So is the Department of Education, which, besides not following through on modest commitments made in response to Biden’s order, should add voter registration information to its FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) process, the report suggests.
In the 2020-2021 cycle, FAFSA had 18 million student applicants, including 84% of all black students, 74% of Latino students and 68% of Asian American ones – “many of whom are young people not registered to vote,” Minnis noted.
And the report estimates that another 60,000 voter registrations could be added annually through the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Service, which is unique among federal agencies, Minnis pointed out, in its routine interactions with people who by nature of becoming new citizens are both eligible to vote and unregistered.
“To close out,” said Adam Lioz, of the Legal Defense Fund, “we need to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, and we expect the administration’s strong voice in that fight. We appreciate the progress agencies have made and we implore the administration to finish the job on a clear and urgent timeline.” (Mark Hedin/Ethnic Media Services)