VA Retreats on Voter Registration Efforts for Wounded Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs has retreated on a recently announced policy to allow voter registration drives at its facilities where veterans' groups and others would assist wounded former soldiers to participate in the 2008 presidential election.

"It is VHA (Veterans Health Administration) policy to assist patients who seek to exercise their right to register and vote; however, due to Hatch Act (Title 5 United States Code (U.S.C.) 7321-7326) requirements and to avoid disruptions to facility operations, voter registration drives are not permitted," the new policy directive by Michael J. Kussman, Under Secretary for Health said.

The Hatch Act restricts political activities by federal employees.

The VA directive rolls back a new policy announced in late April where the agency agreed, after mounting public and political pressure, to assist wounded veterans with registering to vote and voting for federal elections. While the VA still says it will help former soldiers on an as-requested basis with registration and voting, curtailing voter registration drives brought swift condemnation from Capitol Hill and advocacy groups.

"We believe that the earlier directive better addressed the need for a consistent voter registration policy for our veterans," Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and John Kerry (D-MA) said in a May 6 letter to VA Secretary James B. Peake. "While the changes made in the new directive seem small, the impact is large. It appears to us that the Department took one step forward for our veterans and the right to vote by directing that assistance be provided with voter registration and with securing absentee ballots, but then took a large step back by prohibiting voter registration drives."

The Senators questioned the Hatch Act claims, saying the "Office of Special Counsel has made it clear that federal employees, even those who are considered to be in sensitive positions, may "assist in voter registration drives."" And they questioned how voter registration drives would disrupt VA activities.

"We would appreciate knowing the type of disruptions the VA envisions might occur during voter registration drives by nonpartisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters or veterans' organizations, and why any potential disruption could not be addressed by less restrictive means," the said.

The VA press office did not respond to several calls seeking a further explanation of the new policy late Thursday afternoon.

Veterans' advocates were more than disappointed.

"VA's decision, during wartime, to block voter registration for our hospitalized veterans is shameful, outrageous, and despicable," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "VCS finds it unconscionable that VA would reverse position and prohibit voter registration efforts for our wounded, injured, ill, and disabled veterans in VA hospitals and nursing homes as more and more casualties flood home from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars."

"This is voter suppression, pure and simple," said Scott Rafferty, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has been fighting the VA in court for several years to allow voter registration efforts at the VA campus in Menlo Park, California, near San Francisco.

Rafferty said there was little doubt the decision to deny voter registration drives -- because they were political -- was en extremely political decision. "They've been caught letting the Republican Party send paid campaign workers to register voters after they excluded nonpartisan volunteers from the same campus," he said. "They've been forced to admit under oath that they told the League of Women Voters that if they took a position on Iraq, they'd lose their access. The court told them they can't do that anymore, so they are going to ban all voter registration drives."

Veterans for Common Sense's Sullivan made the same point.

"America has entered a dark day in our history when President George W. Bush's Administration prevents veterans who are patients in a VA hospital from registering and voting behind a false claim of partisan politics," he said. "There is absolutely nothing partisan about assisting veterans who defended our Constitution with registering to vote."

Sullivan said he hoped congressional pressure could prompt the VA to reconsider the voter registration drive policy. Meanwhile, Rafferty said the VA's newest directive would inject new issues into the ongoing litigation surrounding voter registration at the agency's Menlo Park campus.

"We'll ask the Ninth Circuit to make the VA offer every veteran a chance to register when they first come to the VA," he said. "The First Amendment applies to VA campuses, so we also want a set of rules that lets visitors talk politics to the same extent that can talk about the weather -- without the threat of six months in jail if they are overheard."

Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, which is organizing registration drives in some two dozen states this summer, also said there was little doubt the decision was driven by the prospect of wounded veterans voting against the administration's current war policies.

"This is yet another action from the Bush administration that imposes barriers to registration and voting in front of Americans they don't trust to vote for their preferred candidates," he said "Government, regardless of what party controls it, has a monopoly over the mechanisms of registration and voting and they hold that responsibility in trust for the public. The Bush administration has repeatedly allowed their political interests to trump their obligations to the public and now, it seems, veterans are the latest victims."


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