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.
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.