By Dana Lawrence, Director of Communications and Grassroots Advocacy at the Michigan Primary Care Association. A version of this post appeared on their website.

Last week a group of folks from Michigan Health Centers and other nonprofit organizations came together for a training presented by Michigan Primary Care Association in collaboration with Nonprofit VOTE, Michigan Nonprofit Association, Michigan Voice, and the National Association of Community Health Centers on how to integrate voter registration assistance into the health insurance enrollment process. With just two weeks until open enrollment begins for plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace, enrollment staff are gearing up to provide quality assistance to Health Center patients and other community members.

Asking someone if they would like to register to vote while they are enrolling for health insurance is actually a natural fit. The question of whether an individual would like to register to vote is on the Marketplace application, as well as in Michigan’s online application for public assistance programs offered through the Department of Human Services.

“In addition to helping patients apply for health insurance, another service we think is important for Health Centers to provide is helping individuals register to vote or update their voter registration,” said Natasha Robinson, Program Specialist, Outreach, Enrollment & Education, Michigan Primary Care Association. “An individual’s vote matters to their health care and their Health Center, and assisting them through the voter registration application takes just a few minutes but offers tremendous, lifelong benefits.”

By integrating voter registration assistance into the enrollment process, Health Centers will reach individuals who might otherwise not register to vote. When registered to vote, individuals are empowered to make their voices heard, and they realize that their vote can make a difference. Plus, studies show registered voters are more likely to be civically engaged. People who vote have a powerful impact on public policy and government, and influence laws and budgeting.

The nonprofit sector, which includes Health Centers, serves underrepresented and underserved populations with a history of lower voter participation, and wide gaps in who votes undermines democracy and nonprofit missions and goals. A new report recently released by Nonprofit VOTE, Can Nonprofits Increase Voting, demonstrates that nonprofits have the ability to close voter turnout gaps. For example, constituents engaged by nonprofits to register to vote in the 2012 election were markedly more diverse and lower income, yet the voter turnout among those contacted by nonprofits was 74%, six points above the 68% turnout rate for all registered voters.

Long story short, the upcoming implementation of the Affordable Care Act – beginning with the launch of open enrollment on October 1, 2013 – will bring millions of Americans into Health Centers and other social service agencies across the country. This offers Health Centers a unique opportunity to give their clients the option of registering to vote or updating their voter registration if they’ve moved or had a name change. Many Health Centers and other agencies already offer ongoing nonpartisan voter registration assistance as part of their Medicaid and WIC application and renewal processes to comply with the National Voter Registration Act. Health Centers now have a chance to offer the same voter registration assistance to significantly more people.

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