What if millions of state or federal income tax filers had the opportunity to register to vote or update their voter registration at the same time they filled out their tax returns? For years, I’ve studied the potential effect of letting people register when they file their income tax returns – and recently the idea has been picking up steam among state and federal policymakers.
While we currently face deep partisan divisions over voting rules, there should be no dispute about implementing a simple system that makes it easier for the vast majority of citizens to perform their civic duty.
Working with nonprofit organizations participating in the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, I conducted field experiments to estimate the impact of offering voter registration at tax filing. I found it doubled the likelihood of an unregistered person registering to vote. Based on these findings, if voter registration were offered at all VITA programs nationwide, it would register more than a hundred thousand people a year.
Making voter registration available at all VITA sites would have an immense impact; the program serves 3 million households every year. One challenge for lower income voters is that frequent moves make it harder for them to keep their registration up to date. Lower income families also tend to come from communities of color that are traditionally underrepresented at the polls. So voter registration at VITA could play an important role in ensuring all Americans participate in our elections.
Voter registration at VITA is just one of several possible implementation strategies. For instance, law professor Jeremy Bearer-Friend and I have proposed an IRS “Schedule VR” based on the national voter registration form. Filing out the form would be voluntary and IRS examiners would not have access to private voting data. In Canada, the income tax form already has a check-box option for tax filers to register to vote, and this system is a major reason more than 90 percent of eligible voters are registered.
In recent months, there has been an upsurge in US interest in the potential of voter registration at tax filing, both at the federal and state levels.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) has introduced the “Filer Voter Act” to require tax preparers to offer voter registration. Modeled after the original National Voting Rights Act, this bill would allow those filing their taxes through a tax preparer or with online software to be prompted to register to vote or update their registration. Because tens of millions of households file their taxes with a preparer or using software every year, this legislation could have a substantial reach.
The Treasury Department is slated to respond to President Biden’s Executive Order 14019 requiring all federal agencies to develop a plan to “provide access to voter registration services… in the course of activities or services that directly engage with the public.” The order specifically requires agencies to seek out “nonpartisan third-party organizations” to assist with voter registration. This is tailormade for the IRS’s VITA program, which has longstanding relationships with nonprofits across the country, many of which already have voter registration programs.
In the Oregon legislature, HB 2499 would require the Secretary of State to coordinate with Department of Revenue to keep voters’ registration addresses up to date. At a recent hearing, Neal Ubriani of the Center for Secure and Modern Elections said that 10 percent of Oregonians do not have a driver’s license and likely are missed by the state’s existing automatic registration system.
And, he added, “younger and low-income populations are less likely than other groups to have a license.” While not every household files an income tax return, Oregon’s League of Women Voters reports that tax filing can keep voter registration information more up-to-date since driver’s licenses are renewed only every eight years, while personal income tax returns are filed annually with the Department of Revenue.
Policy change comes slowly, but these approaches all have the potential to substantially improve ballot access for millions of Americans. As law professor Lawrence Zelenak has argued, the income tax filing process serves an important civic purpose for Americans, drawing their attention to the role their government plays in their lives. That ritual should be amended to include voter registration services. Americans ought to be reminded that they owe their country their voice, as well as their money.