In early August, I received a voter registration letter and application from the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). I remarked that DTA was doing their job — perhaps because of a voting rights lawsuit brought against the agency in December of 2011. The lawsuit was brought by NY-based independent think-tank, Demos, and New England United 4 Justice, a non-profit organization, on behalf of a Lowell woman who said she has been receiving welfare benefits for ten years and could not recall ever being offered a chance to register to vote.
The lawsuit alleged that the department has consistently failed to comply with federal voter registration laws that require government agencies to provide voter registration materials and to assist clients in filling out the forms. State records show that the number of voter registrations taking place at public assistance offices in Massachusetts have fallen dramatically, from a high of nearly 27,000 in 2000 to just over 2,000 in 2010.
Demos put the lawsuit on hold after officials agreed to send out registration forms in time for the November 2012 election. The DTA sent voter registration forms last month, along with prepaid return-envelopes to nearly 500,000 low-income individuals. The state has also aired public service announcements on television screens at welfare office waiting rooms explaining how to register to vote.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown’s opposition to state initiatives to expand voter registration amongst welfare and SNAP (food stamp) recipients has stirred outrage amongst voting-rights advocacy groups and state officials. Brown has criticized Massachusetts officials for mailing voter registration letters to nearly half a million people on public assistance. He contends that this mass mailing is an attempt to increase the number of people registered as Democratic voters, thereby bolstering rival Elizabeth Warren’s chances of unseating him in the November senate election.
Demos and state officials deny that the mailings were politically motivated. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign dismissed the senator’s assertions as “bizarre.” Brown has argued that, “This effort to sign up welfare recipients is being aided by Elizabeth Warren’s daughter.” The daughter in question, Amelia Warren Tyagi, is chairwoman of Demos’s board of trustees. Brown continued, “I remember what it’s like to have a single mom raising a family. It is not about that. It is not about getting people out to vote. It is the fact that Professor Warren’s daughter is leading the charge at taxpayer expense, getting out the vote for her Mom.”
Brown also complains that state officials have used taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients to vote. Earlier this month Brown released a statement saying, “I want every legal vote to count, but it is outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party.”
Brown is missing the point: The Department of Transitional Assistance has done a poor job carrying out federal voting registration guidelines, which require government agencies to provide voter registration forms to welfare recipients. Brown and his people are bitter that the state has conducted a mass voter registration effort aimed at low-income voters during a very tight election. Brown‘s criticism echoes the Republican line of trying to undermine the mission of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 which mandates that states provide voter registration services at motor vehicle registries and public offices including the Department of Motor Vehicles and SNAP.
State officials including Daniel Curley, commissioner of DTA and Secretary of State William Galvin, have defended the decision to send out voter registration letters, saying that it was a necessary step to comply with federal law.
According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts represents the only state to respond to the national lawsuit by agreeing to mail out voter registration letters. Massachusetts Attorney General, Martha Coakley’s officials countered by saying that many states have agreed, in principal, to reform their voter registration.