BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU — Hawaii’s health exchange violates the National Voter Registration Act, says the state’s League of Women Voters.
The voter act requires all states to provide residents access to voter registration when applying for a driver’s license, welfare, unemployment benefits and a host of public programs.
But the Hawaii Health Connector, established by the Legislature as a nonprofit to run the Obamacare exchange and funded with $200 million in federal money, fails to provide information about voting on its website or in other materials.
The office of the state attorney general said the health connector is not required to provide voter information on its website because it is an independent, nonprofit agency. The attorney general’s office said had issued an informal opinion on the matter to the Office of Elections and Department of Human Services, but it would remain a privileged document unless either the Office of Elections or DHS released it.
The League of Women Voters argues the Hawaii Health Connector is performing government services and is funded with federal money. The connector should integrate widely available voter registration links and other resources into the website, the league says. The league says the state attorney general, who is charged with representing the governor and state agencies, appears to be representing the health connector at taxpayers’ expense.
“It is wrong to suggest that the Hawaii Health Connector is not covered by the National Voter Rights Act because it is a nonprofit agency,” said State League President Piilani Kaopuiki. “The Hawaii Health Connector is performing state services that are required by the Affordable Care Act, and there is strong legal precedent that the actions of such an entity are attributable to the state.”
The attorney general said in response: “The Department of the Attorney General does not represent the Health Connector. Our client in this matter is the Elections Commission. Pursuant to HRS section 28-4, the Department of the Attorney General is required to “give advice and counsel to the heads of departments, district judges, and other public officers, in all matters connected with their public duties, and otherwise aid and assist them in every way requisite to enable them to perform their duties faithfully.”
The League of Women Voters maintains providing access to voter registration is not only a legal obligation but also essential for attacking the problem of low voter turnout.
Some 270,000 Hawaii residents eligible to vote are still unregistered. The state consistently ranks at the bottom regarding voter turnout among the states.
“The League of Women Voters refuses to remain silent on this serious problem. We believe a citizen’s right to vote is a fundamental right,” said Kaopuiki. “In Hawaii the League has worked for more than 50 years to encourage voting. It is our core mission, and we urge immediate action to protect voting rights and democracy in Hawaii.”
Other states are already committed to offering people the opportunity to register to vote through their state health exchanges, just as they do through departments of motor vehicles and other agencies, and Hawaii should follow suit, Kaopuiki said.
The league is urging Attorney General David Louie to reverse his position — the Hawaii Health Connector is not a state agency and its officers and employees are not state employees, so the nonprofit does not have to comply with federal law.
The league has also asked State’s Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago to designate the state’s Health Benefit Exchange as a voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act and work with the connector to ensure voter registration opportunities are granted to all who seek health benefits.
Rex Quidilla, spokesperson for the Office of Elections, said the connector is nonprofit and, therefore, the elections office cannot force its compliance. The Office of Elections has contacted connector staff and board members to encourage them to place links on the site, Quidilla said.
Technical problems with the website are part of the reason behind the reluctance, Quidilla said.
The Hawaii Health Connector launched Oct. 1, but users were unable to connect to state social service and health-care insurance provider websites. The site relaunched Oct. 15, but users still complained about technical problems, similar to the problems with healthcare.gov.
The Hawaii Health Connector’s board addressed the voter registration issue in September. Meeting minutes say:
“Update on National Voter Registration Act Compliance: Executive Director (Coral) Andrews reported that the League of Women Voters raised the question whether or not the Connector was subject to a Federal requirement to conduct voter registration. The Attorney General’s determined that the Connector was not a state agency responsible for conducting voter registration activities pursuant to the National Voting Rights Act.”
The connector’s public relations firm provided a copy of the September minutes but has yet to offer additional comment.
A member of the League of Women Voters told HawaiiReporter.com the nonprofit, nonpartisan voter advocacy group has no plans to back down on its requests.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the attorney general did not give its informal opinion to Hawaii Reporter because of attorney client privilege related to its representation of the Office of Elections and Health Connector, but it should have said the Office of Elections and Department of Human Services.