Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) and 17 other Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen Tuesday asking that voter registration services be offered at tax preparation assistance centers across the country — an expansion they say could add over 100,000 new voters to the rolls.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers offer free help with tax preparation, geared at people with low incomes, disabilities or who do not speak English.
“Such individuals are often also the least likely to be touched by typical voter registration efforts, even in states that maintain robust voter registration programs,” the senators wrote.
The senators point out that the Treasury Department did not include VITA centers in its plan to expand access to voter registration per a summary the White House released in September. President Joe Biden had, back in March, ordered executive branch agencies to brainstorm how to expand access to the franchise through their programs and services.
The senators call the Treasury Department’s overlooking of VITA centers “a missed opportunity.”
They cite a 2019 Brookings study that found that offering registration services at a subset of VITA sites doubled the likelihood of an unregistered person registering to vote.
Replicating that effort at all VITA centers, they wrote, could result in “approximately 115,000 unregistered eligible voters registering to vote, including 63,000 individuals who would not otherwise register.”
Advocates initially responded eagerly to Biden’s executive order calling the agencies to action, listing the myriad possibilities: voter registration opportunities at citizenship ceremonies to healthcare.gov to Social Security offices.
While the White House’s summary of what agencies came up with is a good start, advocates told TPM, they want to see more.
“There are a lot of federal agencies, and this is a step forward,” said the Brennan Center’s Lisa Danetz. But, she added, “I think a lot more could be done.”
How aggressively the administration expands access to the franchise through the executive branch has taken on increasing importance amid Senate Democrats’ inability to pass voting rights legislation.
So far, all their attempts, across multiple pieces of legislation, have crashed up against Republican filibusters. Last week’s attempt with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act garnered the most Republican support so far: one vote to break the filibuster, cast by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
Democrats bit their tongues while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) tried to recruit Republicans to the cause, insisting that there’s a bipartisan route forward to pass the bills — to no avail. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have so far supported keeping the filibuster intact, which gives Republicans a veto over the voting bills and much else of Biden’s agenda.
But now, the rest of the Senate Democrats are losing patience.
“We have to look at what’s next, and I believe that is restoring the Senate,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), a leading lawmaker on the voting rights effort, told reporters last week. “At some point, our democracy has to move along.”