Removing Barriers: Public Benefits and Voter Registration

Registering more than 7,000 new voters through GetCalFresh
Hand holding a phone, with screen asking applicant "Do you want to register to vote?"
The GetCalFresh team, the California Department of Social Services, and the California Secretary of State’s office worked together to create a voter registration experience that would meet the needs of our clients.

Many of us are inundated with options to participate in democracy during an election season: knocks on doors, fliers filling mailboxes, and text notifications at all hours. And still, many of us are facing critical barriers to voting: finding easy ways to register, standing for hours in long lines to cast a ballot, or being purged from voter rolls.

Ensuring that every citizen has the ability to vote—regardless of race, primary language, or income—remains an elusive goal in our democracy. Code for America believes voting and the access to vote is incredibly important, as the policies enacted by elected officials have strong consequences on the day-to-day lives of the people we serve.

Simple, accessible voter registration remains one of the foremost barriers to voting. Registering—and keeping a registration up to date—can be especially burdensome for people of color, people with low incomes, and young people.

California has the highest rate of poverty in the nation, and is experiencing record levels of participation in CalFresh (our state’s name for SNAP). In fact, Code for America’s GetCalFresh website assisted nearly 70% of SNAP applications statewide at the beginning of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed our country’s failure to meet the basic needs of millions of people—around jobs, wages, housing, food, health care, and more. There’s a critical weakness to the nation’s public health and economic well-being.

We also know that people who need government services to improve are often excluded from the process of choosing representation in government. That’s why this year, we decided to explore what it might look like to help people register to vote through GetCalFresh.

Voter registration through public benefits

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) makes it possible to register to vote when applying for public benefits like SNAP, with the goal of building a diverse electorate.

The policy has been a success in adding more people of color and people with low incomes to the voter rolls. In 2016, voter registrants making less than $30,000 per year were only 11% of the total registered population, but they represented nearly half of those who reported registering to vote at public assistance agencies.

Here’s what it looks like today: States are required to ask on both digital applications and at non-digital touchpoints if benefits applicants and clients are registered to vote, and if not, if they would like to be. The implementation can be inconsistent. For example, Californians need to provide an address to be able to register to vote online, which poses a serious challenge since roughly 35% of GetCalFresh clients don’t have stable housing (or nearly 85,000 people in the past year).

“‘Do you want to register at your current address?’ The question makes me think that I can’t be homeless and vote.”

GetCalFresh client

The NVRA was written with the best of intentions. But, it was written long before applying for benefits online was even an option, let alone the norm. It’s easy to understand what inclusive implementation of voter registration looks like in-person: You go to an office to fill out a benefits application, and are also provided with voter registration information that you can fill out while you wait. If you have any questions, a caseworker is there to answer them. It’s less clear how to do this well in a digital world.

Ahead of the 2020 election, the GetCalFresh team, the California Department of Social Services, and the California Secretary of State’s office worked together to create a voter registration experience that would meet the needs of our clients applying for CalFresh, while not creating a barrier for those who don’t want to register.

Balancing compliance and client experience

We believe one of the key principles to building a human-centered safety net is ensuring that all touchpoints in the process of applying for and maintaining benefits are easy to understand. GetCalFresh aims to follow plain language principles and avoid legal jargon, which impedes our ability to communicate in a way that serves all clients—including those with limited education, English proficiency, experience with government systems, or cognitive abilities (both situational and otherwise).

The legal language on the paper voter registration form didn’t align with these principles, so we tested alternatives that would meet both the policy goals and our clients’ needs. Testing variations of the client experience is a great way of optimizing access to voter registration, and learning in real time alongside policymakers and our government partners.

It’s clear that when people come to they are looking to apply for food assistance. While excited by the potential of voter registration, we didn’t want it to become an obstacle to the clear goal of getting assistance to buy groceries. Rather than redirecting clients to another website, we offer to text clients a link to the CA Secretary of State’s voter website with directions on how to register. This approach struck a balance between supporting people in their primary task of applying for CalFresh and offering the opportunity to register to vote.

Four voter registration client experience variations: "Do you want to register to vote at your current address?" "Do you want to register to vote?" "Do you want to register to vote?" (with registration deadline), "Your voice matters!"
We tested four variations of what it would look like to be asked if you want to register to vote within the GetCalFresh client experience.

We designed and tested four variations of the client experience that emphasized different elements like simplicity and motivational language, as well as a straightforward digitized version of the paper form. We arrived on a final design through a combination of qualitative and quantitative research, and policy input.

  • Usability tests and interviews. After recruiting CalFresh clients at a (pre-COVID) food bank event, we asked them to walk us through each variation, and rank them by preference. In addition to insights about how the language options resonated (some were “simple,” others “manipulative”), we discovered that language about registering at your current address was leading participants to think that people experiencing homelessness couldn’t vote.
  • Quantitative research. We ran an experiment to measure the comparative effectiveness of the four different designs within The team randomly assigned over 100,000 applicants to one of four variants. The results of the test also showed that there was no significant difference between the efficacy of any of the variations. More people opted in when they were shown the simpler versions, but when we took into account how many actually ended up visiting the voter registration website, the results equaled out.

Throughout our research, we were pleased not to find any evidence that any version of the voter registration page discouraged applicants from completing their SNAP application.

We strive for data-driven decisions around any changes to GetCalFresh, knowing that any alterations change the experience for hundreds of thousands of people. But when the data is inconclusive, we turn back to the best resource we have available: clients’ own voices. Ultimately, we implemented the version of this page that was closest to the paper form, in terms of interaction. But we rewrote the copy to remove any confusion about eligibility, and to incorporate some of the more motivational language that performed well in usability testing. As a result, we’ve helped more than 7,100 Californians register to vote this year.

While many of us may be tracking politics closely with great concern over who will be sitting in the Oval Office come January, there are millions of people who are far more concerned with how they’re going to feed their families tomorrow. Despite differences in privilege, priorities, or political persuasion, it’s important for all of us to have an easy, accessible option to participate in the democratic process. Enfranchisement and representation are critical to a democracy that can serve all people—including the most marginalized—through policies that impact our ability to live our lives freely. And voter registration is one way that is working to move those efforts forward and meeting people where they are.

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