Pennsylvania, a presidential battleground, is joining at least 15 other states that have agreed to make it easier for welfare recipients to register to vote in agency offices.
The Keystone State agreed Wednesday to settle a lawsuit over the so-called Motor Voter law, a 19-year-old statute that says public-assistance agencies must offer clients the chance to sign up to vote. Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Virginia also have changed their ways after either being sued or told by advocacy groups how they could improve compliance. The changes stem from pressure by activists whose drive may aid Democrats in November.
About 1.5 million people have registered since 2004 because of the drive, according to New York-based Demos, a nonprofit group involved in the Pennsylvania case. The state was sued as the presidential campaigns scrounge for every vote, making ballot access a key front as Democrats challenge restrictive steps taken by Republican-led states.
“When you have a national election that is as close as this one, any little advantage is going to be seized upon by either side,” said Charles Gerow, a Republican political consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital.
More than twice as many Americans who aren’t registered would vote, if they could, for President Barack Obama than for Mitt Romney in November, according to a USA Today-Suffolk University poll released Aug. 15 by the Boston-based school. It said 43 percent would back Obama, a Democrat, to 14 percent for Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Efforts to compel states to ensure participation, such as the fight by Democrats to reset Ohio’s early voting schedule, may make a difference in a close election, analysts say. Voter- identification laws recently passed in Republican-led states such as Pennsylvania face legal challenges calling them harmful mainly to the poor and disabled who want to vote Nov. 6. A Pennsylvania judge has refused to block that state’s statute.
“Any law governing elections has a partisan impact,” said Widener University’s Michael Dimino, who teaches election law in Harrisburg. “It does come down to liberal versus conservative and beyond that it comes down to Republicans versus Democrats.”
There’s no difference between the American Civil Liberties Union’s fight over Pennsylvania’s voter-identification law and the Motor Voter case, Dimino said. Both involve ballot access for the disadvantaged, he said.
In the settlement Wednesday, Pennsylvania agreed to change how it asks public assistance recipients if they want to register, to retrain agency workers and to update computers. Like Massachusetts did under a similar accord, Pennsylvania will mail voter registration forms to aid recipients.
The state will compile related data for Demos and other plaintiffs, as part of the three-year agreement. Agencies will post registration forms on their websites while workers will be required to ask clients who decline to register to opt out.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Department, which oversees elections, said he had too little information on the accord to comment Wednesday, after the federal court in Philadelphia got the settlement notice.
Pennsylvania didn’t offer registration help or forms in most public-aid offices, according to the lawsuit. Demos says federal data show a 93 percent drop in voter signups in the offices to about 4,200 in 2009-2010 from 1995-1996, while food- stamp applications almost doubled to 1.8 million.
“By not registering their clients aggressively, it makes the scale of our work and the need for registration that much greater,” said Craig Robbins, executive director of plaintiff ACTION United, which represents low- and moderate-income people.
Called the National Voter Registration Act, the 1993 law says states must offer signup forms and help at offices providing food stamps, family aid and other assistance. Demos says registrations through agency offices shot up nationwide by November 1996, yet fell 79 percent over the next decade, citing U.S. Elections Assistance Commission data.
Activists also scored a win in the Massachusetts case last month. The interim settlement drew fire from Republican Sen. Scott Brown as an attempt by the state to help his challenger, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, using taxpayer dollars.
Under that accord, Massachusetts spent $276,000 to mail about 478,000 registration forms to aid recipients. The Motor Voter lawsuit cited a 95 percent drop in signups at aid-agency offices over a decade, to about 2,000 from 27,000 in 1999-2000.
Brown, the only Republican holding a statewide elected office in the Bay State, faulted the accord as too costly and aimed at helping Warren’s campaign. The race, in which neither candidate has a commanding lead in voter surveys, may help determine who runs the upper chamber of Congress. Democrats now control a six-vote Senate majority.
“It’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party over another,” Brown said in a statement, noting that Obama was a founding Demos board member. The group says it’s nonpartisan and has denied trying to help Warren.
“Issues related to election law and voter registration have become so politicized,” said Lisa Danetz, senior Demos counsel in Boston. “How can it be bad to help people eligible to vote overcome the various requirements so they can participate?”
A 2006 Motor Voter lawsuit against Ohio was settled about three years later, under then-Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat who took office in 2007. The Massachusetts case, filed in May, was settled in less than three months. In Pennsylvania, the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, produced an accord in seven weeks.
Demos uses U.S. data to find states with low registration rates from public-assistance agencies, and with its partners does further research to narrow down targets. Lawsuits aren’t the group’s only method of persuasion, Danetz said. Technical help is also offered, and advocates have won cooperation from some states after sending letters detailing compliance failures.
The voter-registration issue transcends this year’s election, according to David Rubino, a lawyer with Demos.
“Our main objective is to get folks registered,” he said. “Our goal has always been active participation.”
Agencies have to do more than just offer registration forms, according to Sarah Brannon at Project Vote, a Washington- based nonprofit group that works with Demos. Employees must ask clients if they want to register and offer help, she said.
Even with the successes Demos cites, increased registration by low-income voters may not mean they’ll cast ballots, said Robert Stein, who teaches politics at Rice University in Houston and has studied voting behavior.
“There’s not a lot of evidence that higher voter registration leads to high turnout” among the poor and college students, Stein said. Candidates are less likely to target those groups with advertising or get-out-the-vote calls. “They’re not encouraged to vote.”