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Mass. Senate

Sen. Scott Brown called foul last week after voter registration forms were mailed to thousands of welfare recipients. Commentator Eileen McNamara calls it a “manufactured controversy.” (AP File Photo)

As more states adopt voter identification laws to try to restrict access to the ballot box, Senator Scott Brown is reserving his outrage for his own state’s laudable efforts to comply with a federal law to promote voter registration.

Would Brown have Massachusetts defy the law designed to ensure that all eligible voters have an opportunity to participate in the electoral process? Is his fear of being judged by a fully representative sample of his constituents really that great?

There is nothing sinister about the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more widely known as the “Motor Voter Act.” The law requires states to provide voter registration materials to applicants for a driver’s license, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other public assistance. Congress designed the law to address the nation’s anemic voter participation rate. Only half of all eligible voters in this country are registered to vote. Of those who are registered, only 63.6 percent cast a ballot in the last presidential race, according to the Pew Research Center.

If Scott Brown is looking for a real cause for indignation this election year, it’s voter identification laws, not voter registration laws.

In Massachusetts, according to the 2010 census, only 58.2 percent of eligible low-income voters in Massachusetts were registered to vote, compared with 76.9 percent of higher income residents. In addition to poor people, unregistered voters tend to be young, disabled or non-white. That’s Brown’s real beef.

If the rolls swell with underrepresented voters, the junior senator fears too many of those ballots might well be cast for his Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren. If they are, it won’t be because her daughter is the board chair of Demos, one of several voting rights groups that helped negotiate an interim settlement to bring Massachusetts in compliance with the law. Demos and its allies have been negotiating similar agreements across the country for years, most recently in New Mexico, which last month agreed to distribute voting information at its motor vehicle offices. That state, like many others, is resisting provisions in the law that require the same material to be distributed at welfare offices.

Massachusetts has incited the ire of Brown and his coat-holders at The Boston Herald by mailing voter registration material directly to recipients of public assistance. The cost of the stamps pushed them over the edge. The far more expensive, and indefensible, option of resisting the law in court apparently escaped their indignation about the waste of “taxpayers’ money.”

According to the lawsuit filed against the Commonwealth in May, public assistance offices filed 2,007 voter registration applications in 2009-2010, compared to 26,984 in 1999-2000. Of 174 welfare recipients interviewed by the plaintiffs last summer, 73 percent said they received no voter registration information.

That lawsuit was brought not only by Demos but by Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and by the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray. Brown wants you to see a conspiracy in the fact that Warren’s daughter works for Demos and Governor Deval Patrick’s wife works for Ropes & Gray.

This would be a manufactured controversy at any time, but Brown’s faux outrage is especially infuriating in an election cycle that has seen a proliferation of state voter identification laws aimed at suppressing participation in this fall’s election. Those who oppose requiring voters to present state-issued photo ID cards at the polls aptly describe these laws as a solution in search of a problem. They claim that voter fraud, the rationale for voter idenitification laws, is so rare that on the eve of a trial last month to defend its new statute, Pennsylvania said it won’t even argue the point. There “have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states,” officials said in court papers.

Between 2002 and 2005 only 70 people were convicted for federal election crimes, according to a New York Times investigation. Of those, 41 were campaign or government officials; exactly five were voters who impersonated someone else.

Despite the rarity of voter fraud, 10 states have adopted photo ID laws since 2011. (Massachusetts is not among them despite Brown’s sponsorship of such a bill during his state Senate career.) More than 21 million Americans do not have the identification cards required to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. A Philadelphia Inquirer analysis found that 9.2 percent of voters in that state lack the required state-issued ID; the number is closer to 18 percent in cities where poorer, non-white residents are more likely to live.

Two weeks ago, Mike Turzai was touting his accomplishments as House Majority Leader in Pennsylvania to a group of fellow Republicans. “Voter ID – which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania – done,” he crowed.

If Scott Brown is looking for a real cause for indignation this election year, it’s voter identification laws, not voter registration laws.

Tags: Election 2012, Mass. Senate, Scott Brown

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