IU Tax Policy Colloquium: Williamson, Filer Voter: An Experiment Testing Voter Registration at Tax Time

Left to right: Pamela Foohey, Leandra Lederman, Vanessa Williamson, David Gamage, Tim Riffle

By: Leandra Lederman

On February 28, Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Tax Policy Colloquium, hosted this year by my colleague David Gamage, welcomed Vanessa Williamson from the Brookings Institution. Vanessa presented a report that is due to be released at the end of March on a “Filer Voter” experiment she conducted at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites in Cleveland, Ohio and Dallas, Texas.

For those who may not be familiar with it, VITA is an IRS-run program that offers free tax return preparation (generally federal and state) for taxpayers who made $54,000 in income or less (for 2018) and meet certain other requirements. An IRS web page provides training materials and certification tests for volunteers. The IRS works with local groups in that it provides VITA grants to partner organizations. For example, in Bloomington, the VITA program is run by United Way of Monroe County.

Vanessa’s Filer Voter experiment involved offering some taxpayers who come to VITA sites for tax-return preparation the opportunity to register to vote. The experiment was structured as follows: Each VITA session was divided in half by time, and within each session, the first half or second half was randomly assigned the treatment of offering voter registration, and the other half of the session was the control. The study included collection of demographic information and consent forms from taxpayers in both the treatment and control groups.

The VITA sites involved in the experiment collected and submitted the completed voter registration forms. That is apparently more difficult to do in some states than others. For example, Vanessa’s draft report states that in Texas, “any voter registration forms collected must be hand delivered by the Deputy Voter Registrar to the county within five days. Failure to comply with these requirements is a misdemeanor offense.” She explained that this means that delivery must occur in person (not by mail) and within five calendar days even when that period includes a weekend and/or holidays.

The opportunity for voter registration was provided at intake. That meant that when an intake volunteer conducted a quick review of a taxpayer’s tax documents to make sure the taxpayer had brought the necessary information returns (such as W-2s), only taxpayers with a Social Security number (not using an ITIN to file) were offered the opportunity to register to vote. This was to avoid causing VITA clients concern related to immigration status. The procedure also meant that there were no delays in tax-return preparation, according to the results of the study.

The experiment was successful in increasing both voter registration and actual voting. That was more true among younger filers. (The specific statistics are not public yet but will be included in the report in March.)

Vanessa explained in her talk that she views tax-time voter registration as very much a second-best approach. But, as she notes, it links taxation and representation. It also reaches a population—lower-income individuals—who are less likely than the average individual to register to vote. Low-income individuals also move more frequently on average, so an annual opportunity to re-register could be helpful. Of course, as she noted in the talk, they may also move between tax season and November.

Filer Voter is a really interesting idea. As someone who has served as Faculty Adviser to a VITA site, I can see how it could be feasible when implemented as Vanessa described, such that it that doesn’t distract from VITA’s main mission. I also learned from talking with Vanessa about some of the practices of VITA sites where things run very smoothly, such as having a room where a movie is playing where taxpayers can sit after intake while they wait their turn for return preparation.

The workshop discussion also included other possible ways to increase voter registration, particularly among low-income taxpayers. For example, other tax preparers, such as members of the Free File Alliance, could offer voter registration. (Free File was recently discussed in this interesting post on Procedurally Taxing by folks here in Bloomington.)

This is a really interesting set of ideas, and potentially a movement! Thank you again to Vanessa for sharing her fascinating project with us!


Maurer’s Tax Policy Colloquium series will continue on March 21, with Prof. Lily Faulhaber from Georgetown Law School presenting “Is Digital Different? Economic Nexus and Other Efforts to Respond to the Changing International Tax Landscape.” (I’m sorry to say that I’ll miss Lily’s talk, as well as Prof. Sam Brunson’s presentation on April 4, as I’ll be at the University of Luxembourg for three months on a Fulbright research grant.)

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