Veteran Affairs Department Won't Help Ex-Soldiers Register to Vote

For at least four years, since the 2004 presidential election when a veteran, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was the Democratic Party nominee, the Department of Veterans Affairs has blocked efforts to help ex-soldiers register to vote at its facilities in all 50 states.

"This is politically motivated voter suppression," said Scott Rafferty, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who has fought the Department (VA) in federal courts since 2004 over the right to assist veterans, including homeless vets, to register to vote at the VA campus in Menlo Park, California. "The VA is making its open campuses, even those where hundreds of homeless and aging veterans live, First Amendment-free zones."

The issue has resurfaced, not merely on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, but because the VA -- whose public affairs office did not answer telephone calls nor return requests to comment Monday -- apparently has also stonewalled requests by U.S. senators for an explanation.

"We write today to once again highlight our concerns about voter registration in VA facilities," began a March 6, 2008, letter from Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, and Sen. Kerry, to James B. Peake, secretary of Veterans Affairs. "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."

The letter continued, noting that "despite this lack of response, we now understand that the VA has engaged in litigation against voter registration efforts by third-party groups in VA facilities. In light of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals decision that voter registration groups are not allowed to register veterans, we strongly urge you to focus on what the VA can do to ensure all veterans have access to registration."

The litigation cited in the senators' letter refers to Preminger v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Menlo Park suit where the VA argued before federal district and appeals courts that, in essence, political activity, including First Amendment speech and voter registration efforts, should not occur in its facilities because those activities were not medical in nature and were political, Rafferty said, summarizing the litigation.

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

The Feinstein-Kerry letter asks the VA to consider that policy judgment, in contrast to fighting voting rights activists like Rafferty, whose client in the Menlo Park case filed its lawsuit in 2004 because nurses reportedly were deciding which veterans were mentally fit to vote. Those deemed able were assisted with voter registration, Rafferty said.

"It is an insult to those who have fought to spread democracy and freedom overseas to be denied the right to participate in their own democracy here at home," the senators wrote. "If each facility took a few simple steps to provide voter registration materials, the VA could do its part to guarantee access to voter registration."

The letter also criticizes the federal court ruling that said VA facilities are just medical, a position the VA took in court.

"We understand that the Court of Appeals seemed to indicate that the VA's role in assisting veterans was purely medical," the senators said. "However, the VA has a long and proud history of providing myriad services to veterans... providing them with the opportunity to become more actively involved in our democracy seems an appropriate role for the VA. The argument that providing access to voter registration at facilities would distract from the medical goals is as unfortunate as it is counterproductive."

Rafferty said the medical-only rationale was not just a political ruse; it was untrue. Across the country, VA facilities have been rented to social agencies working with the homeless, and used for university libraries, parks and even a minor league baseball stadium, he said. Rafferty said the "Rolling Thunder" veterans group in New Jersey, which has lead many pro-Republican demonstrations in Washington, regularly meets at VA facilities. Moreover, before the 2004 presidential election, California's Republican Party paid workers $15 for each new voter registered, and actually registered "dozens of people" at the Menlo Park homeless center, Rafferty said.

The senators' letter also quoted leaders from veterans' groups encouraging the VA to adopt a policy to assist veterans with voter registration.

"Veterans know the price of freedom," said John Rowan, president of Vietnam Vaterans of America. "While only one-quarter, at most, of the veteran population utilizes VA facilities for their healthcare, designating VA medical centers -- as well as community-based outpatient clinics and even regional offices -- as voter registration agencies should help more veterans have the opportunity to fulfill their civic responsibility which they have sacrificed so much to preserve for all of us, and vote."

"The Department of Veterans Affairs should serve as an example ensuring that every veteran that passes through its doors is afforded the opportunity to register and vote," said Randy L. Pleva, Sr., president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. "It is through the exercise of our franchise that we unsure the perpetuation of our democracy and serve as an inspiration to others throughout the world."

Neither Rafferty nor congressional staffers could estimate how many veterans might register to vote at VA facilities. However, there are hundreds of facilities across the country serving more than 23 million veterans, according to the VA's website.

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