Daniel Zingale

Viewpoints: Covered California can be an important vehicle for democracy

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

Only fools rush in.

But that's exactly what Rush Limbaugh did when he lambasted Covered California, our state's health exchange, for its plans to help people looking for affordable insurance also register to vote.

Here's what he said on "Fox & Friends" about Covered California: "You show up to get your health insurance, they're going to register you as a Democrat; they're going to get you to the polls to vote on Election Day as a Democrat; they're using Obamacare and these exchanges to grow the Democratic Party."

Tempting as it is to point out the many false assertions in that statement, I'd instead like to thank Rush for calling attention to Covered California's plans to offer insurance seekers the option to register to vote.

It's a pivotal opportunity for California – one that cuts to the core of who we are as a state. Not to swell the ranks of any political party, but for other, more fundamental reasons.

Let's start with some facts. There are almost 6 million Californians who are eligible to vote but are unregistered. That's more than the combined population of seven states. We're a sorry 45th in the nation in voter registration.

We've got a kind of voter apartheid in California. Our voters do not reflect who we are as a state, and who we're becoming.

More than two-thirds of California's likely voters are white. But we're less than half of our state's population. Likely voters also tend to be homeowners, older and upper income.

People who are not registered, on the other hand, tend to be people of color, younger and less wealthy. These are also our fastest growing populations. A whopping 70 percent of Californians under the age of 25 identify as people of color.

They're the future of our state, but they're still not reaching their full potential as voters. And that's bad news for the Golden State.

Rush might disagree with me, but it's important to have more people participating than not. The more people participate, the more our policy decisions will reflect the values of the people; the more people get engaged and involved in their communities, the healthier and more robust their communities become.

So, what is the cheapest, easiest way to reach unregistered voters, and where do we find them? Go where they are. Ideally, where they're already filling out forms and writing down their addresses and contact information.

Here's where Covered California comes in. The same people are projected to show up there. That's why California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and state Sen. Alex Padilla were right to designate Covered California a voter registration site. That means Covered California should offer people who come there easy ways to register to vote.

Covered California has the opportunity to get right what the Department of Motor Vehicles got wrong. When the National Voter Registration Act passed in 1993, the DMV was supposed to make it easy for people to register to vote there. Instead, the DMV implemented a complicated and poorly written two-step process that left people mistakenly thinking they had registered to vote. The process confused people so much that a 2005 poll of unregistered, eligible Californians found that almost 20 percent mistakenly thought they had registered at the DMV.

Covered California is earning a reputation as the national model for state health exchanges. It can be the model with voter registration, too. It can train enrollment counselors to help citizens register to vote, in addition to helping them find affordable health plans. The same information applicants provide to shop for health plans can also be used to register.

Other states have designed similar processes, with great success. For example, Michigan DMV staff ask driver's license applicants if they would like to register to vote. If they respond affirmatively, a pre-populated registration form is printed, which the client must review and sign, thereby registering them to vote. Thanks to these efficiencies, today, over 88 percent of all eligible voters in Michigan are registered.

If the millions who are expected to go to Covered California register, we'll have a more robust electorate that represents who we are and who we're becoming as a state.

Rush is afraid a rise in voter registration will swell the ranks of the Democratic Party. But voter registration trends show that the fastest growing party affiliation among young voters is not Democratic or Republican, but independent.

So far, the talk on the left and the right about Obamacare has been just that – talk. Whether it will prove to be the country's greatest social policy advance of the last three decades, or a monumental socialist-inspired disaster (as Rush might claim), is all speculation at this point.

The people who actually experience Obamacare, who go to Covered California and get their insurance there, should have the last word on it at the ballot box. On whether it should stay or go. Change, or remain the same.

Not Rush. Not the president. But the people.

Daniel Zingale is a senior vice president at the California Endowment, a statewide philanthropic foundation and a leader of their Health Happens Here Campaign. www.calendow.org.

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