Veterans Department Creates Roadblocks to Voter Registration for Injured Vets
On the same day the Pentagon's commander in Iraq told the Senate that new troop withdrawals could not considered for months, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake told two Democratic senators that his department will not help injured veterans at VA facilities to register to vote before the 2008 election.
"VA remains opposed to becoming a voter registration agency pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act, as this designation would divert substantial resources from our primary mission," Peake said in an April 8 letter to Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass. He was referring to a 1993 federal law that allows government agencies to host voter registration efforts.
Both Sens. Feinstein and Kerry said they were frustrated with Peake's position.
"The Department of Veterans Affairs should provide voter materials to veterans," Feinstein said. "I believe the cost of providing these voter materials is minimal. It's a small price to pay for the sacrifice these men and women have made in fighting for our nation's freedom. I am disappointed."
"You'd think that when so many people give speeches about keeping faith with our veterans, the least the government would do is protect their right to vote, after they volunteered to go thousands of miles from home to fight and give that right to others," Kerry said. "And yet we've seen the government itself block veterans from registering to vote in VA facilities, without any legal basis or rational explanation.
"I will keep fighting with Sen. Feinstein to ensure that veterans aren't facing unnecessary hurdles just to exercise their voting rights."
Peake's letter was the latest response to a year-old request by Kerry and Feinstein to give veterans using VA facilities the opportunity to register to vote, just as people who apply for a driver's license are given that chance at state motor vehicle agencies. Veterans who have not previously registered, as well as registered voters who move, must reregister with new addresses in order to vote. By not helping the injured veterans to do so, it is likely that former soldiers seeking care at VA facilities will lose their right to vote in 2008.
The secretary's letter explained the decision by citing ongoing litigation where a federal court recently "found that the VA's restriction on partisan political activities in VA facilities... does not on its face violate the First Amendment" rights of veterans.
Peake also said the VA was "considering" the issue for future departmental action, telling the two senators, "VA shares your commitment to assisting veterans in exercising their constitutional right to vote."
While Senate staffers were studying Peake's letter for ways to keep pressing the issue, the letter brought swift condemnation from veterans' advocates.
Veterans advocates dismayed
"During a time of war, our nation has a special and sacred duty to assist our fellow citizens who have defended our Constitution with their lives -- our military veterans -- with registering to vote and with voting," said Paul Sullivan, Veterans for Common Sense executive director. "We encourage VA to allow nonpartisan voter registration drives at VA facilities so that as many veterans as possible can actively participate in our democracy -- we owe our veterans no less for standing between a bullet and our Constitution."
Sullivan said that third-party groups could help the VA with voter registration.
"Reasonable steps should be taken by VA and nonpartisan voter registration groups so that such activities do not interfere with the delivery of services, while at the same time protecting our veterans' rights to register and to vote," he said. "Hopefully, in 2008, America will see record voter registration and voter turnout, especially from our veterans, and most especially from our wounded, injured, ill and disabled veterans in VA facilities."
Scott Rafferty, an attorney based on Washington, D.C., who has fought the VA in federal courts since 2004 over the right to assist vets, including the homeless, to register to vote at a VA campus in Menlo Park, Calif., said Peake's contention that the VA didn't have the resources to register voters was not credible.
"It is a ridiculous position," said. "Because in today's world, with the internet, there are not significant costs to a voter registration program. You are talking about one additional piece of paper when you are talking about the processing of an incoming veteran ... They want to keep veterans cloistered and politically inactive."
Rafferty said the issue was not going to go away. The federal judge in the Menlo Park litigation is required to make some big decisions on that case in the near future, where Rafferty said voter registration proponents are seeking a nationwide injunction to force the VA to offer voter registration. Rafferty also said at least one secretary of state from a large state also was considering ways to pressure the VA.
"Their mission is to take care of veterans," he said.
VA response not unique
But the VA's response is not unique among government agencies, according to Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, which is organizing registration drives across the country in 2008.
"America, among western democracies, is unique in putting the responsibility on the individual, not the state, to register voters," he said. "Today, 63 million Americans, about a third of eligible voting age population, are not registered to vote."
"When we try to shift the onus from the individual to the state, we see reluctance -- and the VA is one example," Slater said, saying that many state social service agencies that already are required to offer voter registration opportunities to public aid recipients have not followed through.
The state that does the best job at offering voter registration -- because it was sued by the Department of Justice -- is probably Tennessee, Slater said, where for every 100 food stamp recipients, 27 people were registered. In Oregon and California, only 8 people per 100 food stamp recipients are registered to vote, he said. In Arizona and Florida, it is 2 percent.
"If California did as well as Oregon, that would be an additional 180,000 voters," he said. "There is just this huge potential if government agencies like the VA finally offered voter registration."