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VA Now Allows Voter Registration Drives, But Will Its New Policy Help Vets in 2008?

With Senate pressure looming, Veterans Affairs issues a new policy after barring voter drives for most of the 2008 voter registration season.
 
 
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For the fourth time in six months, the Department of Veterans Affairs has revised its policy on allowing voter registration drives at hundreds of VA facilities serving injured and homeless veterans. Monday's announcement, on the eve of Senate hearings, said the agency would allow voter registration drives if certain conditions were met.

"The Department will welcome state and local election officials and non-partisan groups to its hospitals and outpatient clinics to assist VA officials in registering voters," the VA said in a Sept. 8 news release. "Such assistance, however, must be coordinated by those facilities in order to avoid disruptions in patient care."

Under the new rules, each VA facility will have to publish its voter registration policy, and "develop procedures to coordinate offers of assistance." VA regional counsel also will assess whether any voter registration group is "non-partisan," before allowing the organization into VA facilities to register voters, the new policy directive said.

"We are hoping that this will be fairly fast," said VA Spokesman Phil Budahn, when asked whether the new policy would accommodate veterans living at VA facilities for the November presidential election. "We don't see this as a terribly complicated process."

But voting rights advocates said the new VA policy, while moving in the right direction, was announced so near to the close of voter registration for this November -- which in half the states is four weeks away -- that it may have little impact this fall. During the past four months, when many of 2008's voter registration drives occurred, the VA has banned voter registration efforts by non-profit groups and local or state election officials.

"The new directive makes only very minor changes," said Tova Wang, Common Cause vice president of research. "The VA still has not responded to the call from voting rights groups, elections officials and members of Congress to allow it to be designated on a state by state basis as an agency that automatically provides voter registration services."

"The veteran must still affirmatively request voter registration assistance rather than it being offered as a matter of course by the agency," Wang said, referring to state motor vehicle departments, where voters are asked if they want to register to vote. "And while the VA softens the language with respect to third party registration drives, it seems to primarily allow decisions about access by such groups to be left to local discretion."

Scott Rafferty, a Washington-based attorney who sued the VA in 2004 over the voter registration drive issue at its facility in Menlo Park, California, said the new directive suggested that the agency was not doing all it could to veterans vote in the upcoming presidential election. The burden was now on the VA to help vets vote, he said.

"In view of their admission that their prior policy was inadequate, they (VA) need to take responsibility for affirmatively assisting every veteran," Rafferty said. "They have denied partisan and non-partisan groups the opportunity to assist with voter registration. Now it is their job to get that done before the (2008) voter registration deadlines."

Rafferty said the VA's new policy contained no standards or procedures for how non-profit groups would be vetted and approved for voter registration activities. He feared the new policy, which relies on local VA facilities to promulgate voter drive rules, could result in some locations encouraging voter registration while other do not, a scenario "subject to political bias."

Other veterans advocates reached Monday said that they recently were turned away by VA officials when seeking to register voters. However, those advocates said they were told by those same VA officials that volunteers trained by the VA would soon start to register residents at its facilities, in contrast to third-party groups needing permission.

"We have a short training course for them," said the VA's Budahn. "These will be the people who will be implementing the new policy."

Four VA Policies Since March

Since March, the VA has issued four different policy directives on voter registration drives at its facilities. During the Clinton administration, the registration drives were allowed. However, under the subsequent Bush administration, they were curtailed.

In early March, the VA announced a policy similar to the directive issued Monday -- allowing VA-approved groups to go onto its campuses to help former soldiers living and receiving care there to register to vote. In late April, the VA rescinded its March policy allowing the voter drives, saying it was a partisan activity that would interfere with its medical mission. In early summer, the VA tightened its rules on voter drives, denying public officials who oversee elections access to its facilities for registration purposes. That decision prompted criticism from members of Congress, secretaries of states, veterans groups and some newspaper editorial writers.

The policy announced Sept. 8 reinstates much of the March directive, notably reversing the prohibition on registration efforts by public officials and allowing third-party groups that have been vetted by VA lawyers. The VA's policy comes as Congress was on the verge of passing legislation that would force the agency to affirmatively help veterans with voting. Congressional staffers contacted Monday said that legislative push would continue.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said the issue now was how the agency would implement the policy for the November election. He said local and state government officials, such as the Los Angeles City Council, and local members of his organization, were seeking to organize voter registration drives at VA facilities.

"Implementation will be the key," Sullivan said. "Veterans for Common Sense is urging the VA to issue their instructions quickly. We hope the state and local governments, and non-profit groups can quickly begin registration so vets can vote in the next election. Very fast action is needed now."

Sullivan said the VA needs to issue instructions to its staffer covering voter registration, absentee voting, early voting options and voting on Election Day.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).

 
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