Incorporating Voter Registration with VITA Services

Today’s guest post is from Vanessa Williamson and Jackson Gode. Vanessa is a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings, and a Senior Fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Jackson, also at Brookings, is Research Analyst with the Governance Studies program. The post discusses interesting research showing how conducting voter registration drives at VITA sites prompted a significant number of previously unregistered voters to register and vote. As Vanessa and Jackson discuss, a recent Executive Order is obligating agency heads to consider how they can facilitate voter registration and participation. This post discusses a simple way IRS can assist. Les

By September 23rd, 2021, all federal agency heads are obligated by President Biden’s Executive Order 14019 to submit a plan to the White House outlining how their agencies can promote voter registration and participation. Our research suggests that, by incorporating voter registration into the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, the IRS could assist millions of citizens in registering to vote or updating their registration. 

Such a program clearly falls within the mandate outlined in EO 14019. The executive order requires agencies to consider how they can “provide access to voter registration services… in the course of activities or services that directly engage with the public.” Each year, the IRS engages with over 150 million households when they submit income tax returns. Moreover, the executive order specifically calls for the consideration of “soliciting and facilitating approved, nonpartisan third-party organizations and State officials to provide voter registration services.” Through the VITA program, the IRS currently partners with hundreds of organizations across the country to provide free tax preparation services to low- and moderate-income households. Many organizations that participate locally in VITA, such as the United Way, already include voter registration in their missions.

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We know that voter registration at VITA is an effective approach because we have piloted the program in fifteen cities and eleven states, using a rigorous randomized, controlled approach to measure not just how many people the program would register to vote, but how many people registered at VITA would not otherwise be registered. In 2018, we found that offering voter registration opportunities to VITA clients doubled the likelihood of an unregistered person registering to vote. Our findings also showed that clients who registered at VITA sites were more likely to turnout during the election.

Through our pilot programs, we’ve found that adding voter registration can be a seamless step in the VITA process. The sites we partnered with typically found it easiest to add voter registration to the intake process. In addition to offering clients the standard VITA intake packet (Form 13614-C) and any site-specific materials, intake volunteers alert clients that they can register or re-register to vote, and provide them a voter registration form. Filling out a voter registration form is simple. It takes an average of two minutes to complete. After filling out the form, clients simply return it, along with the rest of their materials, to VITA volunteers. Organized in this way, voter registration does not slow down tax preparation; instead, the voter registration form can give clients something to do as they wait their turn for an available tax preparer. The site then submits registration forms to the appropriate county clerk’s office in accordance with local law.  

The IRS has a number of options if it were to scale this pilot program. The most effective strategy to implement voter registration at VITA sites would be for the IRS to mandate that all organizations participating in the VITA program offer voter registration to their clients and submit the completed forms in accordance with local law. The IRS could also provide sites with the necessary materials, including copies of the National Mail Voter Registration Form, which also provides state-specific guidance. We believe that this approach would register around 115,000 voters a year.

Short of a mandate, the IRS could simply encourage VITA sites to add voter registration to their work. At a bare minimum, the IRS needs to provide clear guidance that VITA sites are legally allowed to add voter registration to their tax preparation services. In our research, we have on several occasions found that site coordinators wrongly believed that voter registration is a political activity, and therefore that they could not provide voter registration to their clients. VITA organizations we have worked with have requested, and received, clarification on this point from the IRS, but a clear communication to all VITA organizations would go a long way in reassuring potential VITA participants that they can help their clients register to vote. 

VITA-based voter registration has the potential to be exceptionally effective in registering voters. First, the VITA program reaches a lower-income population that tends to be under-registered. Second, by collecting and submitting paper forms, VITA sites can ensure that their clients actually get registered to vote. Collection is crucial to effective voter registration programs. As President Biden has stated, “it is the duty of Federal, State, and local governments to promote the exercise of the fundamental right to vote.” It would be a shame if the result of the executive order were nothing more than a neglected link at the bottom of irs.gov. Instead, we hope that the Treasury Department will consider the unique role the IRS VITA program can play in assisting tax filers in registering to vote.

TIGTA Report on VITA Errors

This week, TIGTA released a report detailing errors it has found following a mystery shopping study at VITA sites last filing season. The study indicated that of the 39 tax returns prepared for auditors, 20 (or 51 percent) were correct, while 19 (or 49 percent) were prepared incorrectly. While the study is not statistically significant, the mystery shopper approach and TIGTA studies on accuracy of return preparation have received lots of attention lately. They have come up in connection with the Loving case, for example. IRS and those who favor regulating return preparers point to prior studies of commercial preparers that showed unlicensed preparers making errors; counsel for Loving has pointed to prior TIGTA studies showing errors at VITA sites as suggestive that competency testing may not achieve the IRS’s objective of increased return accuracy; after all VITA volunteers must pass a test to be able to prepare returns for free.

There is lots out there already discussing the report, and IRS response to the report. (See for example Accounting Today, which has a small piece discussing the findings and an IRS response). I write to highlight a few parts of the report, including its suggestion that more systematic use of a checklist when getting information from taxpayers would likely reduce errors.

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According to TIGTA, the errors actually resulted in a net overpayment to the IRS; as the volunteers in a number of instances failed to claim appropriate business deductions on a Schedule C, educator expense deductions and retirement credits. Summing it up, TIGTA states that if the 19 incorrect returns had actually been filed, 11 taxpayers would not have received refunds to which they were entitled; and 5 would have owed more in tax or penalties than they otherwise should have owed if the returns were accurate (the other 3 would have received too high a refund or paid too little in tax).

Some issues that have a general high rate of error among self-prepared and commercially prepared returns had a high accuracy rate in this study. For example, in Appendix V of the report, TIGTA indicated that the VITA volunteers had an 85% accuracy rate on the EITC. Child tax credit accuracy and dependency exemption accuracy rates were 92%.

TIGTA’s recommendations focused on ensuring that volunteers appropriately gathered information from taxpayers and that there was a sufficient quality review in place.  In highlighting problems with the information gathering and quality review, TIGTA suggested that volunteer training in those areas was not mandatory, and that additional training and emphasis in interviewing and quality review may have been helpful in reducing errors:

In addition, the IRS created a training document with detailed guidance on the IRS’s intake/interview and quality review processes. However, the IRS encourages but does not require volunteer return preparers and quality reviewers to complete this training, nor does the IRS require site coordinators to complete training on the intake/interview and quality review guidelines. Considering the number of volunteers and quality reviewers who did not follow the IRS guidelines and that most of the errors would not have been made or would have been detected had the guidelines been followed, site coordinators should be required to complete training on these processes. Site coordinators are responsible for overseeing the volunteers’ work and should have a full understanding of the requirements to ensure that volunteers preparing tax returns and performing quality reviews follow the guidelines.

I am a big proponent of uniform approaches to ensuring quality across the board. A book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande nicely illustrates how checklists can reduce errors in a wide range of activities, including medicine and construction. The essential point in the book is that humans are fallible when it comes to ensuring that they are doing all they are supposed to do; simple checklists go a long way in improving accuracy in outcomes. Likewise, more definitive and specific due diligence obligations such as that in place with the EITC can improve compliance. Questions in checklists can force taxpayers and preparers to confront issues systematically and reduce the odds that preparers overlook important information. Visibility and accountability often drive compliance.

There are many ways to make the process more visible and accountable. Often, there are costs associated with visibility and accountability (including higher prep fes), but those costs must be weighed in relation to likely reduced errors. I will look more specifically at the EITC due diligence rules in a subsequent post.