Senator Scott Brown criticized the state’s welfare department Wednesday for sending voter registration forms to 478,000 people on public assistance, contending that the mass mailing was a ploy to boost the ranks of Democratic voters and help rival Elizabeth Warren’s election bid.
The Democrat’s campaign denounced the Republican senator’s criticism as “bizarre,’’ pointing out that the legal challenge that triggered the mailing is part of an ongoing national effort that began years ago and that the law that is being enforced has long received bipartisan support.
The state’s Department of Transitional Assistance sent registration forms last month, along with prepaid return envelopes, as part of an interim settlement over a lawsuit alleging that the department has consistently failed to comply with federal voter registration law.
The suit was filed in May by a pair of voting rights groups that were represented by Demos, an advocacy and public policy organization from New York that has brought similar actions in more than a half-dozen states.
Warren’s daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, chairs the group’s board of trustees, prompting accusations that the lawsuit was motivated by partisan and personal interest.
“I want every legal vote to count, but it’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party,” Brown said. “This effort to sign up welfare recipients is being aided by Elizabeth Warren’s daughter and it’s clearly designed to benefit her mother’s political campaign.”
Demos and state officials denied that the mailings were politically motivated, and Warren’s campaign dismissed the senator’s assertion.
“For Brown to claim this is some kind of plot against him is just bizarre,” campaign manager Mindy Myers said.
“His entire attack is built on efforts in multiple states to enforce a law passed almost 20 years ago with bipartisan support,” Myers added. “Even the Bush Justice Department filed suit to enforce this provision.”
Demos and other groups were challenging the Bay State’s compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the motor-voter law. The law requires states to provide voter registration services at motor vehicle registries and public aid offices.
In Hyannis Wednesday, Brown said he does not oppose registration efforts or efforts to reach out to welfare recipients.
“I remember what it’s like to have a single mom raising a family,” Brown said, according to New England Cable News. “It’s not about that. It’s not about getting people out to vote. It’s the fact that Professor Warren’s daughter is leading the charge at taxpayer expense, getting out the vote for her Mom.”
Federal and state resources are routinely used to ensure that all citizens — including the disabled, military service members overseas, and non-English speakers — are given the opportunity to register to vote and participate on Election Day.
The Boston Herald first reported the welfare department’s mailings in a front-page story Wednesday .
In response to Brown, Demos said that it had worked to enforce the law in 18 states since 2004 and that the litigation in Massachusetts was unrelated to Warren’s campaign.
“We completely reject the Brown campaign’s or anyone else’s assertion that this is politically motivated or coordinated in any way,” said Miles Rapoport, the group’s president. “Demos was doing NVRA work well before Amelia came on our board, and we are going to continue it long after this year’s election is over.”
Brown’s campaign said Rapoport had donated to Warren’s campaign, as had several other Demos board members. “Elizabeth Warren’s daughter would not be leading this effort to use taxpayer funds to register a select group of people if she thought it would result in more votes for Scott Brown,” said Alleigh Marré, Brown’s press secretary.
Demos said it brought the suit in May after reviewing voter statistics obtained in early 2011, before Warren entered the race. Warren’s daughter has not been involved in the suit, the group said.
“The idea that there’s collusion is almost laughable,” said Lisa Danetz, senior counsel for Demos. “We pursue the problems wherever we find them.”
Danetz said Demos was drawn to the case because of census records showing that large numbers of low-income Massachusetts residents were not registered. State records then showed that the number of registrations through public assistance offices had dropped, from about 27,000 in 2000 to just over 2,000 in 2010.
The suit was filed on behalf of a Lowell woman who said she has been receiving welfare benefits for 10 years and could not recall being offered a chance to register to vote.
The law requires government employees to have registration forms available, to ask clients if they need to register, and to provide help with the form. The lawsuit contends that did not consistently happen in Massachusetts.
“It’s making sure that voter registration is offered affirmatively,” Danetz said. “It’s not enough to put a stack of forms on the counter.”
Poor compliance, she said, is widespread. Demos filed similar suits in Nevada and Pennsylvania this year. Cases had previously been settled in New Mexico, Indiana, and Georgia.
Demos said it has not dropped the lawsuit but agreed to stay the suit until December after state officials agreed to send out the registration forms so that people could register in time for the fall election.
“They should be commended for taking steps to make sure their low-income clients were provided with a voter registration application they should have received when they visited the office,” Danetz said.
The state spent $276,000 on the mailings. Daniel Curley, commissioner of the transitional assistance department, said the mailings had nothing to do with partisan politics.
Curley said he agreed to send the mailings to ensure people received the forms. He said the department would remind employees of the legal requirements in trainings.
“We believe we were in compliance,” he said. “But we can look at ways to do it better.”
William Galvin, who oversees elections as secretary of state, said the “idea there’s conspiracy here is fiction” and said his office works aggressively to register voters.
“Obviously we want the maximum participation,” he said. “It’s a nonpartisan effort.”