Nearly a half million welfare recipients in Massachusetts received voter registration letters from the state in the mail following a court settlement, but Republicans say it's a blatant political power move aimed at getting Democrats to the polls in November.
State GOP leaders argue the aim is to support Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor now locked in a tight battle for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Scott Brown.
Roughly $275,000 in taxpayer money is the cost, but Brown's campaign argues the real smoking gun is that Warren's daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, sits on the board of Demos, an advocacy organization that acted as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that argued Massachusetts failed to meet federal requirements allowing people to sign up to vote when they register for public assistance.
"First of all, I think it's important to note that people who are on welfare should get up and vote, and I'm looking forward to working for their votes," Brown said. "That being said, for professor Warren's daughter to be head of an organization that's actually using taxpayer monies to get people on welfare out to vote, it just doesn't pass the smell test. They can kind of twist and turn and come up with all these imaginations to make it work, but it doesn't. It doesn't pass the smell test, and I find it outrageous."
Brown is now calling on Warren to reimburse the state for the cost of the mailings.
"Professor Warren has more than $13 million dollars in her campaign account, and if she wants to mail every welfare recipient a voter registration form, she should do so at her own expense, not taxpayers," Brown said in a written statement. "She should immediately reimburse the state for the cost of this mailing and stop playing politics with the taxpayers' money."
Warren's campaign dismissed Brown's charge and argued the National Voter Registration Act was passed long ago with support on both sides of the political aisle.
"This is a law that's been in place for nearly 20 years, and it was passed bipartisan by Republicans and Democrats to try to make sure that there was plenty of access to voting, that people, citizens, were able to register and vote and to encourage registration and voting. And it's been enforced by Democrats and Republicans ever since, including George W. Bush," Warren said.
Regarding her daughter's leadership at Demos and allegations by Republicans that the system is being abused for partisan gain, Warren responded, "this organization was working on enforcement of this law before Amelia ever even joined it, and the organization was working with several states around the country, including Massachusetts. And that was happening before I ever got involved in the race."
State Republican Party chair Bob Maginn wants to see if communication occurred between state government officials, Warren campaign advisers and Warren's daughter prior to settlements being reached. He filed a public records request with the offices of Gov. Deval Patrick, Secretary of State William Galvin and the Department of Transitional Assistance seeking all correspondence related to the voter registration program.
The GOP letter argues that the mailing of voter registration materials and other actions taken, such as TV and radio ads, appears to be an "unprecedented response to similar allegations made in other states." Citing Georgia, Missouri, Indiana, New Mexico the letter argues, "In no case did the above states agree to costly blanket mailings of voter registration materials to their entire welfare roll. Demos was involved in each case."
Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, released a statement in response to the controversy, denying the organization's voting rights litigation in Massachusetts was driven by a partisan agenda or was connected to the Senate race.
"These criticisms, from whatever source, are completely off base," he said. "Demos has worked on strong implementation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act in 18 states across the country since 2004. We believe it is fundamental to our democracy that all eligible citizens be accorded the maximum opportunity to register and vote."
Rapoport went on to commend Massachusetts for working to enforce the law. "We completely reject the Brown campaign's or anyone else's assertion that this is politically motivated or coordinated in any way," he said.
Daniel Curley, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, also argues politics is not at play.
"This is ridiculous," Curley said. "We need to fulfill our federal requirement to help people register to vote. This is real simple -- we are complying with the federal law and helping people register to vote, and anyone who says otherwise is being ludicrous.
"This is solely about following the law and adhering to the National Voter Registration Act, nothing more, nothing less. The scope of our response in terms of mailings and other activities was required by the settlement ... so that the state would be in compliance with long-standing and important federal law."
Curley goes on to argue, "voting is one of the most important civic duties and ensuring that our agencies comply with the National Voter Registration Act is a top priority."
The Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has also released information to the media showing how other states incurred high financial fees or penalties following similar suits related to the NVRA, indicating the following illustrative awards: Missouri, $450,000; Indiana, $350,479.77, and Georgia, $175,000.
Ohio agreed to pay fees but wanted to mediate before agreeing on an amount, and New Mexico was ultimately ordered by the 10th Circuit Court to pay around $267,000 in total fees.