HUD Pushes Voter Registration Drives in Public Housing Under Biden’s Executive Order

Fred Lucas  | The Daily Signal | April 27, 2022 | (Condensed)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will engage in voter registration efforts that in some cases allow mass collection of voter registration forms by public housing officials, raising concerns about the potential for voter fraud among other legal issues. 


HUD’s voter registration drive comes as part of the “all-of-government” approach described in an executive order from President Joe Biden.


HUD sent guidance to executive directors of more than 3,000 public housing authorities managing about 1.2 million housing units, providing advice on “running a PHA–initiated voter registration drive.” 


In government parlance, PHA stands for public housing agency.


Federal housing officials also advised the local agencies on how to apply to become a “voter registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act,” and how to set up drop boxes for ballots on the premises.


The guidance from HUD to local public housing agencies marks the first time in over 25 years that the federal government affirmed that local agencies receiving federal tax dollars may get involved in voter registration, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit public housing advocacy group.


Targeting Government’s Dependents


HUD’s move creates clear ethical problems, as it would with other federal benefits, said Stewart Whitson, legal director for the Foundation for Government Accountability, an ethics watchdog group.


The organization has filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act against the Justice Department, seeking records on how the Biden administration is implementing the president’s executive order.


“Government offices can offer voter registration forms, but voter registration drives are different,” Whitson told The Daily Signal, adding:


Take public housing, for instance. It is presumed [that] residents of public housing might disproportionately vote Democrat. … The executive order targets people receiving government benefits who might think their benefits depend on one party in power.


Whitson said he also questions whether the executive branch of the federal government has the legal and constitutional authority to get involved unilaterally in elections, which are state and local matters.


“If the federal agencies comply with the executive order, this is executive branch overreach that would prompt Congress to intervene and states to sue,” he said. 


Encouraging Voter Drives


On Feb. 9, four HUD offices mailed guidance regarding voter participation to local public housing agencies. The four were the Office of Public and Indian Housing; the Office of Multifamily Housing Programs; the Office of Special Needs Programs; and the Office of HIV/AIDS Housing.


The letter from HUD stated “collaborating with local election administrators to permit the use of PHA space for voter drop boxes and voting sites, including for early voting.”


A Significant Change


Previously, officials at many local public housing agencies said they couldn’t get involved in voter registration because they accept money from the federal government. Biden’s executive order and HUD’s guidance to local authorities mark a significant change, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  


“For many years, various housing organizations, and specifically public housing agencies (PHAs), indicated that they cannot participate in voter registration because they receive federal funding,” the housing coalition said in a press release, adding:

Unscrupulous characters have found ways to abuse public housing for political ends. 


‘Permissible Voter Registration Activity’


The government would consider any coercive or intimidating behavior from officials of local public housing agencies during voter registration efforts to be impermissible, the HUD spokesperson said. 


“If the individuals you cited engaged in coercive behavior, they were bad actors,” the HUD spokesperson told The Daily Signal in an email. 


The federal guidance for multifamily public housing stipulates that partisanship isn’t permissible, and prohibits actions that “suggest that benefits are in any way tied to a participant’s voting activity” or give “the appearance that the processes of voter registration or voting are not voluntary processes.”


Still, the bigger picture of executive branch agencies being involved in elections raises questions regarding the Hatch Act, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, parent organization of The Daily Signal. 


Congress passed the Hatch Act in 1939 after officials in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration threatened to withhold benefits and loans to those who didn’t vote Democrat. 


“If an individual is dealing with government—whether for Social Security, Medicaid, or veterans benefits—when a government clerk tells them to register to vote,” von Spakovsky told The Daily Signal, “the typical reaction for someone getting government benefits is: ‘I better vote for the party in power, or my benefits will be denied.’” 


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