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'Welfare-voter' spat in Massachusetts part of larger political duel

Republican Sen. Scott Brown says Massachusetts' decision to try to expand voter registration among welfare recipients is a blatant political maneuver. But it is part of a national trend.

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A central player in the Massachusetts controversy is the political advocacy group Demos, based in New York. It provided legal representation that allowed plaintiffs in Massachusetts to sue the state this year over alleged violations of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

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In recent statements, Brown has pointed out that the action by Demos comes at a time when the group's lead trustee is the daughter of opponent Ms. Warren.

Other facts have also aroused conservative criticism. Demos is also pursuing voter-registration cases in Pennsylvania and Nevada, considered important "swing states" in the presidential race. And the office of attorney general in Massachusetts, a central player in agreeing to the interim settlement of Demos's litigation, is currently occupied by Martha Coakley, who was the surprise loser when Brown won his Senate seat in a 2010 special election.

Lisa Danetz, senior counsel at Demos, says the group's actions are explained by its public-service mission, not by efforts to sway particular political outcomes this year.

Warren's daughter, Demos trustee Amelia Warren Tiyagi, "has had no role whatsoever in the [motor-voter] litigation generally or the Massachusetts case specifically," Ms. Danetz says.

And Demos has targeted many states in recent years, resulting in settlements or legal victories in a number of states. Those include Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, and Virginia.

Several of those states are important presidential swing states, but Danetz describes the group's priorities in a different way, ticking off how Demos and partner organizations have worked in states that rank near the bottom when it comes to enrolling new voters at public-assistance offices. The Department of Justice has also pursued litigation in some states.

Danetz says Demos pushed hard for Massachusetts to do a mass mailing, because in this case (unlike others) an election is looming with no other timely form of redress available. 

The focus on welfare recipients, viewed as likely Democratic voters, is another source of controversy. Republicans note that the NVRA calls for strong efforts to enroll voters at motor-vehicle licensing departments and at military recruiting centers, not just at welfare agencies.

Liberal groups defend putting a high priority on enrollment efforts aimed at the poor or disabled. "We are concerned with making sure that as many voices are heard in the political process as possible," and low-income people tend to be under-represented in voting booths, Danetz says.

Hasen says many states fail to comply with the NVRA's call for enhanced opportunities to register. When pressed by lawsuits, many seek to reach a settlement, as Massachusetts is doing.

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