Incorporating Voter Registration with VITA Services

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

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.

read more...

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.

Comments

  1. Eva Rosenberg says

    That’s a really interesting idea.
    My one question – how can the volunteers ensure that someone IS a citizen?
    Yes, the question is on their Form 13614-C
    https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f13614c.pdf
    But…are they going to get proof?
    One of my clients was a City Clerk, responsible for voter registrations in her city.
    She told me that she was not permitted to request proof of citizenship from those who registered. (Bizarre rule, from my perspective).

    Still, this is a great idea. Thank you

    • Vanessa Williamson says

      Great question! Yes, generally speaking, when you register someone to vote, you are not obligated to verify that they are a citizen, or any of the other information on the form (e.g. their address or date of birth). So that wouldn’t be something VITA volunteers would have to worry about.

  2. Jennifer Gellner says

    I’m hoping for a mandate!

  3. Joseph M. Erwin says

    Another example of saddling the IRS with another job that has nothing to do with revenue collection.

    • Vanessa Williamson says

      In fairness, this EO saddles every agency with a job that is not their primary mandate! But that responsibility is not entirely new; the National Voter Registration Act gave DMVs and some other agencies the responsibility to register voters, and Motor-Voter has become an important part of our civic infrastructure. Canada also offers voter registration through their income tax filing process, and it has been extremely effective in ensuring that eligible voters are on the rolls. So I think this policy is a reasonable extension of existing systems, and has been shown to work well.

  4. Bob Romeril says

    Looking at US SB. 1, this EO is just the tip of the voter registration push. SB1 Section 1201 says:
    The term “automatic registration” means a system that registers an individual to vote in elections for Federal office in a State, if eligible, by electronically transferring the information necessary for registration from government agencies to election officials of the State so that, unless the individual affirmatively declines to be registered, the individual will be registered to vote in such elections. (starting at age 16 but not lowering the voting age) The logical conclusion would be to just register everyone at birth and then in 20 years or so we should have 98+% of citizens registered. This bill has already passed the House. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/1

    • Norman Diamond says

      “The logical conclusion would be to just register everyone at birth and then in 20 years or so we should have 98+% of citizens registered.”

      I challenge your logic. Voters should be registered in the place they reside not in the place they were born.

      Someone pointed out that Canada offers voter registration on tax returns. That is true. Besides the question of whether the taxpayer is a Canadian citizen, the tax return includes the person’s address.

  5. Bob Kamman says

    Will the effect be to encourage voter registration, or to discourage filing tax returns with VITA help? There was a time when juries were drawn exclusively from voter lists, so people avoided voting to avoid jury duty. Fewer people avoid getting a driver’s license, but there is a lingering perception that voter registration is undesirable, at least for other reasons. Filing a tax return leads to campaign workers knocking on your door and texting you political messages at all hours of the day and night.

    Tax returns are confidential. Voter lists are public. Thnk twice before mixing the two.

Comment Policy: While we all have years of experience as practitioners and attorneys, and while Keith and Les have taught for many years, we think our work is better when we generate input from others. That is one of the reasons we solicit guest posts (and also because of the time it takes to write what we think are high quality posts). Involvement from others makes our site better. That is why we have kept our site open to comments.

If you want to make a public comment, you must identify yourself (using your first and last name) and register by including your email. If you do not, we will remove your comment. In a comment, if you disagree with or intend to criticize someone (such as the poster, another commenter, a party or counsel in a case), you must do so in a respectful manner. We reserve the right to delete comments. If your comment is obnoxious, mean-spirited or violates our sense of decency we will remove the comment. While you have the right to say what you want, you do not have the right to say what you want on our blog.

Leave a Reply to Joseph M. Erwin Cancel reply

*