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House Passes Veteran Voter Drive Bill

Frustration over the VA’s efforts to block voter registration drives throughout 2008 prompts congressional action.
 
 
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Federal legislation to help injured and homeless veterans living at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to register and to vote moved a step closer to passage on Wednesday, as the House passed a bill to force the VA to allow voter registration drives by non-partisan groups.

The House's passage of the legislation came a week after the VA announced a new policy to allow the voter drives, but congressional Democrats said those changes “fall short” of ensuring former soldiers’ voting rights.

“By addressing the restrictive voter registration policies established by the Department of Veterans Affairs, H.R. 6625 expands voter registration opportunities for veterans,” said Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-PA), the House Administration Committee Chairman. “This legislation expands upon recently announced VA policy changes that fall short of ensuring election officials and non-partisan organizations access to VA facilities for the purpose of providing voter registration and voting assistance.”

Speaking for Republicans, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, (R-CA), said he would not oppose the bill because the Administration Committee addressed concerns that assisting veterans who live at VA facilities would “not intrude” on their care or privacy. He said the bill was “not intended to be a gateway to similar programs at other (federal) agencies.”

The Veterans Voting Support Act passed on a voice vote. It requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to accommodate non-partisan groups seeking to register veterans living at VA facilities, and also allows top state election officials to designate the VA as a voter registration agency like state motor vehicle departments, which proactively help eligible voters to register.

“It is absolutely imperative that we give these selfless stewards of our Constitution” access to the ballot box, said Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA), who praised the bill’s provisions to require the VA to assist veterans with voting by mail.

Earlier this week, the Senate held hearings on a companion bill. While many political observers say the bill is an example of legislation that no member can oppose, it is unclear if it will be passed in time to help veterans at VA facilities with voting this fall.

Earlier this month the VA announced it was reversing a policy decision made this past spring, which barred voter registration drives. According to testimony last week in the Senate by VA officials, 5.5 million veterans are served by VA facilities annually, including outpatients and those who live there because they are receiving medical care or are homeless.

There are indications that the VA’s newly announced policy has not changed its stance on limiting registration efforts. In San Francisco’s Fort Miley, members of the non-profit group, Veterans for Peace, last week were denied access to register voters.

VA officials said Veterans for Peace members had to be screened and approved as volunteers, which included being tested for tuberculosis. That response by the VA prompted litigants who have sued the VA over the registration drives to return to court seeking an order to force the VA to allow those efforts.

In testimony filed before a Senate hearing on the legislation this week, the VA’s counsel said the agency had only recruited 173 volunteers to register voters at its 1,400 facilities across the country. The agency's counsel said the VA had registered only 414 inpatients and outpatients nationwide, out of more than 5 million vets who regularly use VA facilities.

Time is running out for voter registration drives geared to the 2008 presidential election. Starting the first week in October, states across the county begin to close registration for November 4 so election officials can process voting applications and prepare for 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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