Tax Prep Dispatch: Voter Registration at Tax Time

Thanks to Vanessa Williamson, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Jackson Gode, Senior Research Assistant at the Brookings Institution, for writing this Dispatch.

Note from the Taxpayer Opportunity Network: The propriety of promoting voter registration at VITA sites was reviewed by SPEC and IRS Counsel. They concluded that this activity is acceptable as long as it is clear that voter registration is a separate activity, is non-partisan and that free tax return preparation service is in no way contingent on voter registration. Distribution of voter registration materials must be separate from distribution of any materials related to tax return preparation (e.g., at a separate table). Also, the tax site must inform taxpayers that voter registration and tax preparation are not related activities and that the organization and voter registration process are not affiliated with any particular political party or candidates. This conclusion has been shared with all of the IRS SPEC Territory and Area Offices.

What If VITA Sites Offered Tax Filers the Opportunity to Register to Vote?

We call the idea “Filer Voter” and tested it at seven VITA sites in two cities in 2018. Our results, reflected in a report issued in the spring of 2019, showed that VITA locations could have a huge impact. VITA sites can double voter registration rates without slowing the tax filing process, thus increasing the civic participation of their clientele.

For the coming tax season, we will be conducting an even larger registration program. If you're interested, keep reading to find out how to get involved in 2020! 

Filer Voter 2018

During the 2018 tax season, seven VITA sites in Cleveland and Dallas conducted voter registration drives. We at the Brookings Institution measured the effectiveness of the program using the same kind of rigorous process used to test the effectiveness of medicines (read our study). 

We found that the Filer Voter program doubled the likelihood that unregistered tax filers will register. The impact was even higher for younger VITA clients. If the process were to be replicated at all VITA sites nationally, about 115,000 unregistered eligible voters would register to vote, including 63,000 people who would not otherwise register. We also found that Filer Voter participants didn’t just register, they also turned out to vote.

Famicos (Cleveland) coordinators are seen mailing a packet of completed voter registration forms. (Credit: Vanessa Williamson)

Here is how the program worked at our sites in Ohio. When clients entered the VITA site and were greeted by the site’s intake/welcome specialist, they received both the Form 13614-C intake form and a voter registration form. The intake specialist explained that if the client wanted to register to vote, they just needed to fill out the voter registration form and turn it in. Once the client completed the paperwork, they returned the voter registration forms, had their Form 13614-C checked and awaited tax preparation. The VITA site then mailed completed voter registration forms to the county board of elections office.

In Dallas, the training and procedures were slightly different because Texas has very unusual and extremely stringent voter registration laws. You can read more about those details here. We partnered with local voter registration groups in Texas that were familiar with their state’s unique bureaucracy which helped make the program a success. Working in Texas tested our program in a challenging environment, so we are confident Filer Voter can work in any state.

In both Ohio and in Texas, we found that once a site was up and running, voter registration fit into the intake procedures seamlessly. In fact, perhaps the most important result of our study for VITA preparers is that offering voter registration did not slow down tax preparation services. Why? First, registration was conducted during the wait period after filers arrived at the site. Second, unlike tax forms, voter registration forms actually fit on a postcard which allows the vast majority of people to fill out a voter registration form without assistance in about two minutes. Thus, the registration process can fit seamlessly into VITA procedures without delaying core services.

Why Voter Registration Matters

Low- and moderate-income Americans, the population served by VITA, are substantially less likely to be registered to vote than higher-income Americans and are also less likely to vote. In 2016, 74 percent of individuals making more than $50,000 voted, compared to only 52 percent of voters making less. Unfortunately, some voter engagement efforts actually widen disparities in participation by mobilizing members of groups already likely to participate rather than affecting underrepresented citizens. Voter registration at VITA sites can play a key role in ensuring that the voting population of the United States mirrors the citizen population.

Participate in Filer Voter 2020

In 2018, our voter registration program reached almost 5,000 VITA clients.  For filing season 2020, we are hoping to dramatically increase the scale of the program to reach 50,000 VITA clients. For participating VITA sites, there will be free training and support as well as financial stipends available to support site coordinators or intake specialists who lead the program at their sites.

If your site already conducts voter registration or is interested in learning more about setting up a voter registration drive for 2020, please reach out to us at filervoter@brookings.edu with the following information:

  • Organization Name
  • City
  • Number of returns filed last year

We look forward to hearing from you!

Related Content