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2008's First Disenfranchised Voters: Injured and Homeless Veterans

Despite new legislation in Congress, the VA is poised to prevent registration drives at its facilities before the November election.
 
 
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The first large block of voters to be disenfranchised in 2008 are the wounded warriors from recent wars and homeless veterans living at hundreds of Department of Veterans Affairs facilities across the country, according to veterans and voting rights activists.

"President Bush and Karl Rove are attempting to block voter registration of at least 200,000 and possibly as much as 400,000 veterans," said Paul Sullivan, president of Veterans for Common Sense, referring to injured former soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in various VA treatment facilities, veterans living in the VA's nursing homes, and homeless veterans living in VA shelters.

"We may have all kinds of hurdles," Sullivan said. "We may have the clock running out on us, but we will not give up. This needs to be shoved in the face of every single elected official in the country. We can fix this in a second We are talking about two or three sentences in legislation. We are talking about the integrity of our democracy."

In recent months, the Department of Veterans Affairs has resisted efforts by U.S. senators and top state election officials to allow voter registration drives in its facilities. Just last month, the VA issued new rules that banned election officials -- whether local registrars or secretaries of state -- from registering voters, saying it was a partisan activity that interfered with its medical mission. In most states, any time a person changes their residence they must update their voter registration in order to vote.

The VA's ban on registration drives, even by state constitutional officers, provoked a rebuke from the National Association of Secretaries of State -- a resolution urging the VA to rescind its policy -- and revived the issue in Congress, where separate House and Senate bills would force the VA to become a voter registration agency like state motor vehicle departments, where people are proactively given an opportunity to register to vote. Under the VA's current policy, any resident in its facilities must seek help with voter registration and voting.

The problem with the congressional efforts, according to Sullivan and others following this issue, is that the VA appears to be on course to run out the clock before meaningful voter registration drives could be undertaken for this year's presidential election.

Under the most optimistic scenario, even if the Congress passed legislation within a week of reconvening, which would be mid-September, the president would have two weeks to sign it into law. That timeline places the bill's potential adoption very close to the first week in October, when voter registration closes for the November election in 27 states. Moreover, at that time, state election officials would have little time to organize and implement voter registration drives, voting rights activists said.

"This is a bill you can't vote against," said Scott Rafferty, who sued the VA in 2004 when the agency blocked voter registration efforts by Democrats at its campus in Menlo Park, California, but allowed the Republican Party onto the campus to register voters. "But it is almost physically impossible to get it passed and implemented in time."

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the Menlo Park appeal, upholding the VA's right to regulate voter registration activities at its facilities. The court said the agency could bar anyone from its grounds because of a presumed affiliation with a political party, Rafferty said.

The Appeals Court ruling means only Congress can change the VA policy.

"There may be one ace in the hole," Veteran for Common Sense's Sullivan said, "and that is a funding bill. If we can get any of this legislation tacked onto a funding bill, the president has to sign it."

Congressional staffers said the issue was a priority and would see action after Congress reconvenes in September. Yet there is little evidence to suggest the VA would abide by such a law before the presidential election. VA officials have stated in recent forums that the agency was opposed to allowing voter registration drives, even by election officials. Its lawyers said so much before the Ninth Circuit in June during a hearing on the Menlo Park litigation, and more recently at the secretaries of states' conference in late July. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit ruling fortifies the agency's stance.

In fact, just last week in Connecticut, where the Secretary of State, Susan Bysiewicz, was allowed into a VA facility to register voters after threatening to sue the agency -- after Bysiewicz and the state's attorney general were turned away in July -- VA officials sought to limit her efforts to register VA staff or outpatients, her staff said, saying that could be construed as a voter registration drive. Those VA officials also resisted her request to return this fall to show residents how new voting machines worked.

"This is not a solution," said Av Harris, her spokesman, saying the VA simply made enough concessions to blunt the threatened suit. "If the other secretaries of state are not as active as we are, the VA will not do anything for them."

The most pragmatic assessment for action on the voter registration issue suggests a new policy will only come in 2009, after the presidential election, when Congress can look at several voting rights laws that guarantee access to the ballot, regardless of the political implications for the party holding the presidency or a congressional majority.

"While the hope for 2009 is a real one, the practical effect now is that the first voters who have been suppressed by the GOP in 2008 are the wounded warriors living in the government's own facilities," Rafferty said.

Steven Rosenfeld is a Senior Fellow at AlterNet.org, where he reports on elections from a voting rights perspective. Previously, he was executive producer of RadioNation with Laura Flanders, a progressive talk show heard on more than 100 Air America Radio and public radio stations.

He is co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election (The New Press, 2006), and Making History in Vermont: The Election of a Socialist to Congress (Hollowbrook Publishing, 1992). An award-winning journalist, he has been a staff reporter at National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, TomPaine.com and at daily and weekly newspapers in Vermont.

 
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