Last week, Massachusetts became the latest state to either settle or lose in litigation over complaints that it wasn’t providing adequate voter registration services at welfare offices.

The settlement is part of a broad effort by voting rights groups to reverse the decline in voter registrations at public assistance offices, which Congress intended to serve as a mechanism for signing up low-income voters. National voting rights groups argue that the decline in registrations is because of improper implementation by staff at government welfare offices.

A 1993 law, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), required that public assistance agencies offer clients voter registration forms and assistance in completing the forms. In the first two years after the law went into effect, more than 2.6 million people registered to vote at public assistance offices, but over the following decade, that number declined. By 2005-2006, voter registration at public assistance offices was almost 80 percent lower than in 1995-1996. During that time, applications from welfare offices also shrank as a percentage of total registration applications received.

Since the nadir in applications in 2006, voting rights groups have pushed states to improve voter registration efforts at welfare offices. That may partly explain why applications have steadily ticked up, even if they remain well below the 2.6 million applications received in the law's first two years. Another factor that is likely to have boosted the number of applications from public assistance offices is increased use of safety net programs -- particularly food stamps -- between 2006 and 2012.

The general trend is that states initially complied and then compliance dropped off,” said Catherine Flanagan, senior counsel at Project Vote, a voting rights group that has successfully litigated similar cases against public agencies in Alabama, New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. It is currently in litigation with two other states, Louisiana and Nevada.

The 1993 law calls for staff at public assistance offices to distribute a voter registration application any time someone visits for services or benefits, including for renewals, recertifications and to fill out a change-of-address form. The only time a person shouldn't receive a registration form is if he refuses, in writing, to register to vote.

States that have ended up in litigation over voting and public assistance have been accused of maintaining welfare offices that provide public assistance forms without a written question about voter registration, that only distribute voter registration applications to clients who mark in writing that they wanted to register to vote, or that fail to discuss voter registration with clients.

The NVRA is better known as the "Motor Voter" law because it requires motor vehicle offices to offer voter registration services when people come in to obtain a driver’s license. This is the main way that government agencies sign up voters visiting a public office for services unrelated to elections. More than 20 million people registered to vote through a motor vehicle office in 2011-2012.

Congress included the public assistance provision to ensure that low-income people who were less likely to get driver’s licenses still had voter registration opportunities. The law had other provisions to make sure people with disabilities and people in the armed forces had ample opportunity to register to vote.

When public assistance offices aren’t complying with the NVRA, it’s often because employees in a human services environment “don’t perceive themselves as elections folks,” said Lisa Danetz, the legal director at Demos. “They’re thinking, ‘how do we get these life-sustaining benefits to people?’”

In Massachusetts, Project Vote, Demos and another voting rights group, investigated the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), a human services agency that oversees food stamps and family cash assistance. The groups said that public assistance forms did not always include a question about voter registration -- and even when they did, that was often the full extent of registration outreach.

For most of the DTA clients interviewed, the groups alleged that DTA staff didn’t ask about voter registration and usually didn’t give the clients a voter registration application. The groups also noted in their initial complaint a lack of informational materials and applications at the DTA offices:

Indeed, there was nothing in the lobbies of any of the DTA offices that might advise clients of the availability of voter registration -- no signs, no posters, no stack of voter registration applications on the intake counters. In several offices, DTA personnel could not even provide a voter registration application when requested to do so.

Thomas Mills, a spokesman for the DTA, said the settlement does not mean that his agency agrees with the characterization that it was out of compliance with federal law. "We’ve always provided voter registration forms to our clients," he said. The settlement "builds upon our efforts."

"I’ve been in offices, shadowing caseworkers, and I hear them during the questioning, 'Are you registered to vote? Would you like to register to vote,'" Mills said. "It’s something that the department does not take lightly."

The voting groups filed a complaint against the DTA and six other government defendants in 2012. Under the settlement, any citizen applying for public assistance will automatically receive a voter registration application. People seeking to renew their benefits or change their addresses will also receive an application. The settlement does not pertain to the other defendants, such as the secretary of the commonwealth and the state's Medicaid director, who remain in litigation.

State Public Assistance Voter Registration Data 

Every two years, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) reports to Congress on findings from a biennial survey about the impacts of the National Voter Registration Act. Voting rights groups use the data as evidence to demonstrate that fewer people are registering to vote at public assistance offices now than in 1995-1996. The table below shows state-by-state numbers for how many voter registration applications were received at public assistance offices for 2011-2012. 

SOURCE: U.S. Election Assistance Commission

Data Notes: Six states are exempt from reporting how many registration applications they receive from public assistance offices: Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Another six states did not report applications from public assistance offices because of problems in data collection. Also, some states that did provide information did not receive responses from all of their election jurisdictions, making their reports to the EAC incomplete.