Wyden, Merkley press Medicaid administrator on Oregon automatic voter registration expansion

Oregon Democrats passed a law this year that could add more than 170,000 Medicaid recipients to state voter rolls – but it’s on hold until federal administrators act. 

The state’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, sent a letter Tuesday to Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, asking for quick action on waivers for Oregon and other states that plan to automatically register eligible Medicaid recipients to vote. 

“Of the roughly 200,000 eligible Oregonians who are not registered to vote, more than 85% are likely to qualify for Medicaid through the Oregon Health Plan,” the senators wrote. “This law has the potential to considerably increase access to voting for low-income Oregonians, but it can only take effect once CMS approves the sharing of this data between the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Secretary of State’s Office.” 

Since 2016, Oregon has automatically registered eligible voters when they obtain or renew driver’s licenses or nonoperating IDs from the Oregon Department of Transportation. More than 800,000 voters have been added to state rolls since then, and more than 93% of all Oregonians who are eligible to vote are registered, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Eligible Oregonians are automatically registered as nonaffiliated voters, then receive mail that allows them to choose a political party or indicate that they don’t want to register to vote. 

House Bill 2107, which passed along party lines this spring and was signed by Gov. Tina Kotek in July, would duplicate that process for Oregon Health Plan enrollees. One in three Oregonians receive their insurance through the state’s Medicaid program, which is managed by the Oregon Health Authority. 

In signing up for the Oregon Health Plan, they provide information to the state that can be used to register to vote, including their addresses, signatures and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. Supporters of the new law say it will help keep voter rolls up to date: Medicaid recipients renew plans and update their addresses annually, while people can go years without interacting with the Driver and Motor Vehicles division. 

The new law is set to take effect on Jan. 1, but first the federal government must allow the Oregon Health Authority to share data with the Secretary of State’s Office. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has spent four years stalling such requests from Colorado, which passed a similar law to Oregon’s in 2019. 

Massachusetts has been allowed to automatically register voters who engage with social service agencies, including Medicaid, and more than 165,000 voters were added to voter rolls through such programs in the 2021-22 election cycle. The Massachusetts system allows voters to opt out of sharing information with election officials while they register for services.

But Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada and Washington, D.C., all passed laws that require voters to opt out of registering to vote by returning mail after the fact. Federal administrators balked at those proposals, with Brooks-LaSure telling U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, last year that Colorado’s law appeared to conflict with Medicaid privacy protections. 

In their letter to Brooks-LaSure, Wyden and Merkley cited a 2021 executive order from President Joe Biden that calls on all federal agencies to evaluate ways to promote voter registration and voter participation. 

“Expanding (automatic voter registration) has shown to be one of the most promising avenues to promote voting access, but states need support from the federal government in order to implement it,” the senators wrote. 

They asked Brooks-LaSure to tell them by Sept. 20 what her agency is doing to comply with Biden’s executive order, what resources the agency needs to help Oregon and other states seeking federal waivers to automatically register Medicaid recipients to vote and to share a timeline for when those states will receive amendments. 

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.