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Dept. of Veterans Affairs Changes Policy on Helping Wounded Soldiers Register to Vote

The VA bows to public and political pressure, but soldiers still must ask for help.
 
 
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The Department of Veterans Affairs has issued new rules allowing former soldiers living at VA facilities to ask for help with registering to vote and voting -- a decision that could increase participation in the 2008 election by wounded Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.

The new rules, to be published on government websites this week, reverses a years-long policy where the VA opposed helping patients and others living on VA campuses -- notably homeless veterans -- with voter registration and voting, saying to do so would be a partisan activity.

"It is VHA policy to assist patients who seek to exercise their right to register and vote," said the new policy, issued by the Veterans Health Administration as Directive 2008-023. "This policy establishes a uniform approach to assembling and providing information on voter registration and voting to veterans who request it."

Under the directive, VA facilities "must ensure" there is a "written, published policy on voter assistance" that allows patients to leave the facility to register and vote, subject to their physician's approval; provides help for registering and voting by absentee ballot; and informs patients that voting assistance is available. It states, "This also needs to be done when the patient is admitted to the facility."

The directive says any VA "personnel (including volunteers)" must review and sign a "Political Activities Fact Sheet" provided by the Office of General Counsel. It also says "any request by an outside organization to hold a voter registration drive on VA property" will be reviewed by the VA's attorneys, but it does not state how quickly the agency must respond to registration drive requests.

Advocates for veterans' voting rights praised the new VA policy.

"VA's new directive is progress," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, whose mission has long included advocating for former soldiers' voting rights. "They changed from actively opposing it to passively supporting it."

"I think is an enormous first step," said Scott Rafferty, a Washington-based attorney who has been fighting the VA in court over the issue since 2004. "Until today, VA policy prohibited staff members from assisting disabled vets who needed help to obtain and fill out voter registration forms. This changes that. That's the good news."

Both Sullivan and Rafferty said the policy's impact would lay in its implementation.

For example, merely posting the new policy in small-print type in the corner of hospital wards and not asking vets if they wanted to register would not change much, Rafferty said, who said the directive did not indicate if the VA would offer the opportunity to register to vote to millions of elderly veterans who come to VA facilities for annual checkups and to renew their prescriptions.

"They also need to reach out to the veterans who live in shelters on VA property who may not be patients," Rafferty said, "and they need to tell veterans who move to VA campuses that they will be purged (from voter rolls) unless they correct their voter registration forms."

Sullivan said his organization would be watching to see how quickly the VA's attorneys would process requests from third-party groups for conducting voter registration drives at VA facilities.

"Veterans for Common Sense plans to follow VA's actions closely in order to make sure that VA's lawyers expeditiously review requests for voter registration drives," he said. "We also hope VA will establish a single national policy so that there is consistent implementation at the local level."

The VA announcement also comes as top election officials in several states, notably California, were poised to ask the VA to designate itself as a voter registration agency, like motor vehicle departments, under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Those requests come on top of persistent pressure from Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass., to assist wounded veterans to register to vote.

The two senators, who had written to Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake in March -- only to receive a response later in the month stating that there would be no change in policy -- also praised the new VA policy in a statement issued late Wednesday.

"The VA directive seems to be a dramatic turnaround in granting veterans the access to voter registration that they rightfully deserve," Sen. Feinstein said. "This directive would require that all VA facilities develop comprehensive voter registration plans to assist veterans in voting. Given the sacrifices that these men and women have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do."

"I am hopeful that this apparent reversal will be one large step forward in the fight to protect the right of America's veterans to vote," Sen. Kerry said. "We will continue to monitor this situation motivated by one and only one principle: Those who fight for democracy overseas shouldn't have to fight for democracy here at home."

Election year pressures
For at least four years, since the 2004 election when Kerry, a veteran, was the Democratic Party presidential nominee, the VA has blocked efforts to help ex-soldiers register to vote at its facilities. As recently as mid-March, the agency told Kerry and Feinstein that its mission was medical, and any effort to help veterans register would be "partisan."

Secretary Peake's response to the senators was first reported by AlterNet, which prompted other news organizations to cover the story, leading to the policy change.

The issue of helping wounded and homeless veterans living at VA facilities to register to vote has been in federal court since 2004, when the VA was sued by veterans' advocates over its refusal to allow voter registration efforts at its campus in Menlo Park, Calif. Many veterans live at VA facilities, with those who are disabled facing great difficulties with leaving the campus for any reason, including registering to vote. Homeless veterans also live at shelters on VA campuses.

As the Menlo Park suit slowly made its way through the courts, the VA also stonewalled requests by Kerry and Feinstein for an explanation of its voter registration policy. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled that voter registration groups do not have the right to register veterans on the grounds of VA facilities. Following that decision, Feinstein and Kerry wrote to Secretary Peake to ensure all veterans have access to voter registration and to clarify the VA's policy in this area.

"We write today to once again highlight our concerns about voter registration in VA facilities," began a March 6, 2008, letter from Feinstein and Kerry. "Nearly one year ago, your predecessor, Secretary Nicholson, was questioned about the lack of access to nonpartisan voter registration services for our nation's veterans. A response to this inquiry was never received."

In mid-March, Secretary Peake wrote back to Sens. Feinstein and Kerry, denying their request to designate VA facilities as voter registration agencies. That response received widespread coverage, including reports in the Army Times and on MSNBC. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., also criticized the VA policy while campaigning recently in Pennsylvania.

The VA, as a federal agency, has the discretion under the NVRA, known as the Motor Voter Law, to determine if it would serve as a voter registration agency, according to election law experts. Under the 1993 law, which mandated state agencies from motor vehicle departments to welfare offices offer people the chance to register to vote, federal agencies can opt to register voters.

Rafferty said the new VA policy raises some questions about the extent to which the agency will be a "motor voter agency," but said the directive removes a legal argument used by the VA for years -- that it did not have to comply with the NVRA.

"This morning, everybody was going to fight tooth and nail for the VA to be designated as a motor voter agency," he said, referring to staffers on Capitol Hill and in state capitals. "That now is gone. This is not 100 percent of motor voter, but it sounds like it. It's the outpatients and the homeless people they are vague on."

Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, a nonpartisan, national voter registration organization, said the new VA policy does not appear to go as far as state motor vehicle departments, which proactively ask people if they want to register to vote.

"Will they make sure the service is available?" he asked. "It seems to be emphasizing the person who seeks help. If that is the case, the onus is still on the voter."

The joint statement by Kerry and Feinstein said "the directive stops short of designating VA facilities as voter registration agencies," but they both said they hoped the VA would implement the policy in a meaningful way so veterans could vote this fall.

"It is my hope to the VA's implementation of this directive will be in time for the 2008 election," Feinstein said. "The VA has a long and proud history of providing services to veterans -- helping them to lead successful and productive lives. Providing them with the opportunity to become more involved in our democracy is an appropriate role for the VA."

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of " What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election " (The New Press, 2006).

 
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