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The National Voter Registration Act requires states to offer voter registration information at offices that provide public assistance and at armed services recruitment offices. Most states also offer voter registration at their motor-vehicle agencies.
H.R. 1 would expand the role government offices play in registering voters. Under current law, applicants “opt in” and choose to register to vote at these offices. Under H.R. 1, applicants would have to “opt out” and decline to register to vote.
H.R. 1 does not single out people seeking public assistance. Rather, it would broadly require government agencies to help people who are eligible to register to vote, including agencies that handle firearms registration or veterans services.
Former President Donald Trump said that Democrats are racing to pass a bill that would destroy the integrity of elections and automatically register poor people to vote.
In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Trump reeled off multiple objections to H.R. 1, including that it "automatically registers every welfare recipient to vote."
Trump’s statement is misleading. The Democrats’ bill to expand voting rights would require multiple government agencies to help eligible people register to vote when they apply for assistance, but it doesn’t single out applicants for programs associated with welfare. And Trump omits that public assistance agencies already play a role in helping people register to vote. H.R. 1 would expand that effort.
Known as the For the People Act, the 791-page H.R. 1 combines proposals for voter registration, absentee voting, in-person voting, campaign finance and ethics.
We contacted a spokesperson for Trump to ask which section of H.R. 1 he was referring to and did not get a response. We also don’t know how Trump is defining "welfare" — an imprecise term that could refer to any number of public assistance programs.
We found no line in the legislation that calls for registering all "welfare recipients" to vote. But Trump was likely referring to the automatic voter registration section that applies to many people who seek government services.
"The goal of H.R. 1 is the full registration of eligible Americans," said Matthew Weil, an elections expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (often called "Motor Voter") requires most states to offer voter registration at their motor-vehicle departments. States must also offer voter registration at offices that provide public assistance or services to people with disabilities and military recruitment offices.
What is counted as public assistance? It’s a long list of federal programs including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Medicaid; and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. If states have their own public assistance programs, those are included, too.
"Given the language found in NVRA, it's safe to say that a number of state public service agencies are already involved with helping people register to vote," Anthony Marcum, a resident fellow at the R Street Institute, a right-of-center organization that opposes H.R. 1 due to concerns about free speech and state rights. "Just not as broadly — or automatically — as H.R. 1 envisions."
Under the 1993 law, public assistance applicants essentially "opt in" by choosing to register to vote. Under H.R. 1, applicants for services would have to "opt out" if they don’t want to register.
H.R. 1 doesn’t automatically register everybody to vote who applies for public assistance, said Sarah Brannon, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
If state or federal agencies determined that they had enough information about an applicant to register to vote, they would forward that information electronically to an election official. If the agency lacks certain necessary information, such as citizenship verification, then the applicant would be directed to a voter registration form. Either way, it’s up to the elections official to determine whether the applicant is eligible to register to vote.
"It is just an automatic process to share the information so election officials decide who is or is not eligible," Brannon said.
The legislation also applies to applicants who previously sought public assistance. If a state agency has an applicant’s information needed to register to vote — including proof of citizenship, age and address — H.R. 1 would require the agency to forward that information to election officials.
H.R. 1 goes further than existing law by including more government offices that must participate including federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and state agencies responsible for regulating firearms — putting eligible registered firearm owners and veterans on the list of those who can choose to opt out of the voter registration process as well.
If the legislation passes, would every "welfare recipient" be registered to vote as Trump said? That’s unlikely. Some public assistance applicants may opt out of voter registration because they are not interested. And applicants for public assistance still have to meet the eligibility criteria — including citizenship — to complete the registration process.
H.R. 1 "automatically registers people for whom there is citizenship information," said Wendy Weiser, an expert on voting rights at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice at NYU school of law. "Automatic voter registration does not substitute for eligibility checks; it substitutes the first part of the process: the application. Your application will be transmitted — you don’t have to take additional steps"
Experts told us that if H.R. 1 were to become law, they would expect some increase in the number of public assistance applicants who register to vote. But they said they couldn’t predict how many more will register that way.
Here’s what we do know: Under current law, adults rarely fill out voter registration forms when they apply for public assistance. State motor-vehicle departments are the most common source of voter registrations, according to the Election Assistance Commission — and would likely remain so. Only about 2% of registrations came from public assistance offices, according to data about the 2016 and 2018 elections.
Automatic voter registration is not a new idea, nor one exclusively pushed by Democrats. The Campaign Legal Center, a group that supports H.R. 1, found that automatic registration has been implemented in more than a dozen states, including Republican-led and battleground states. In these states, the DMV is the most common agency involved in automatic voter registration, though a few states use health or social service agencies, too.
Trump said H.R. 1 "automatically registers every welfare recipient to vote."
H.R. 1 includes an automatic voter registration provision under which government agencies that provide public assistance would pass along to election officials information about people who are eligible to vote as well as any other relevant information including citizenship status.
But Trump’s statement creates a misleading impression that people on welfare will have a special path to voter registration, regardless of eligibility. Under the bill, applicants could opt out, and election officials will still review applications for eligibility requirements before moving them to the voter rolls. That part of the bill isn’t exclusively for people on public assistance. It would apply to veterans and gun owners, too.
We rate this statement Mostly False.
Department of Justice, What is the National Voter Registration Act? Accessed March 1, 2021
Election Assistance Commission, Election administration and voting survey, 2018 report
Congress.gov, H.R.1 - For the People Act of 2021, Introduced Jan. 4, 2021
Congress.gov, HR 1 For the People Act of 2019, Introduced Jan. 3, 2019
National Conference of State Legislatures, Automatic Voter Registration, Feb. 8, 2021
Campaign Legal Center, The Bipartisan Origins & Impact of the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) Jan. 25, 2021
Campaign Legal Center, For a More Accessible, Transparent and Responsive Government, CLC’s Trevor Potter Encourages Congress to Pass the "For the People Act," Jan. 4, 2021
Campaign Legal Center, How H.R. 1 Will Help Us Achieve a Government for the People, Jan. 4, 2021
Center for Responsive Politics, Democrats prioritize campaign finance overhaul with ‘For the People Act’ Jan. 21, 2021
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, Annotated Guide to the For the People Act of 2021, Jan. 20, 2021
R Street, A Primer on H.R. 1, the "For the People Act of 2021" March 1, 2021
Telephone interview, Sarah Brannon, managing attorney for the Voting Rights Project American Civil Liberties Union, March 1, 2021
Telephone interview, Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, March 1, 2021
Email interview, Matthew Weil, director of the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, March 1, 2021
Email interview, Anthony Marcum, resident fellow, R Street Institute, March 1, 2021
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