By Suzanne Gamboa
Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, wants Americans to be more certain to register to vote by linking it with free tax preparation.
Padilla is leading a push for the U.S. Treasury Department to provide voter registration services at federally funded centers that prepare taxes for low- to moderate-income people, disabled people and people with limited English at no cost to them.
“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,” a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Tuesday said. The letter was signed by Padilla and co-signed by 17 other Democratic senators.
The Internal Revenue Service manages the centers created through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program. The program has existed for 50 years, the IRS website said. The IRS provides grants to organizations whose volunteers, often retirees, operate the centers.
According to the IRS, tens of thousands of volunteers in the program and another for older adults prepare millions of federal and state returns.
“We need to meet people where they are with voter registration opportunities. We already offer voter registration at many government offices, and it makes sense to include VITA sites that reach our most underserved communities,” Padilla said in a comment emailed to NBC News.
President Joe Biden ordered federal agencies to come up with ways to boost voter registration. Some of those plans have been unveiled, including registration at federal employment centers and at Department of Veterans Affairs clinics.
The senators said in the letter the list of agencies’ voter registration plans does not include plans for leveraging the VITA programs.
“We believe this is a missed opportunity,” the letter said.
The senators cited a trial study by the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank, that found offering voter registration at VITA sites more than doubled the likelihood of an unregistered person registering without slowing the tax preparation process.
It also found that using the sites could add 115,000 unregistered eligible voters to the voting rolls and could help reduce disparities in voter participation between lower- and upper-income households, the letter noted.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most common way people registered to vote for the 2020 election was through their state department of motor vehicles, which accounted for 27.7 percent of registrations. About 72.7 percent of the U.S. population 18 and older was registered to vote in 2020, the Census Bureau reported.
Padilla previously served as California’s secretary of state. During his tenure, he oversaw many changes in California’s election process to make it easier for people to vote, including online voter registration.
Under Padilla’s watch in the Nov. 3, 2020, elections, California set a state record for number of votes cast — more than 17 million — and number of voters registered — more than 22 million. More than 80 percent of registered voters turned out, the most since the 1976 general election.
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