Nine Senators, Including Obama, Introduce Bill to Help Vets Register to Vote

Nine Democratic senators introduced a bill Tuesday to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer voter registration services to former soldiers living at VA facilities, which the agency has rejected as being too partisan and interfering with their medical mission.

The bill's lead sponsors, Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass., have been urging the VA for several years to be a voter registration agency like state motor vehicle departments, where government employees ask the public if they are registered to vote and would like assistance to do so. Under current VA policy, the responsibility to register to vote lies with the former soldiers, who, like all voters, must update their voter registration information any time they change residence.

The other seven senators co-sponsoring the "Veterans Voting Support Act" are Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

"This is about giving those who have fought to spread democracy and freedom the right to exercise that freedom in the voting booth," Feinstein said. "I believe the cost of providing voter materials is minimal. And given the sacrifices that these men and women have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do."

"It shouldn't have taken a legislative solution to fix a bureaucratic problem, but that's what it's come down to in the name of common sense and patriotism," Kerry said. "Making it easier, not harder, for veterans to vote is the least we can do in our democracy for those who fought for democracy around the globe. The cost of getting these voter materials to veterans is tiny, but its meaning is bigger than any of us."

The issue of removing impediments to voting for veterans has gathered momentum in recent weeks and months. Earlier this spring, the VA announced that it would assist any veteran who asked for help with voter registration and voting. It also announced that the VA would permit voter registration drives by groups that were vetted by the agency's attorneys, but it reversed that policy within two weeks of issuing it.

The VA response, by Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake, came in the form of letters and policy directives sent to the senators. The explanations given -- that voter registration drives were too "partisan" and would interfere with its medical mission -- have triggered critical reactions from the senators and from many top state election officials who have been asking the VA to become a voter registration agency. Before the current Bush presidency, VA facilities across the country mostly allowed voter registration drives and other proactive efforts to help former soldiers vote, according to congressional lawyers who have researched the issue.

The VA has declined every request by AlterNet to comment on this issue.

Nationwide, the VA operates 155 medical centers, 135 nursing homes, 717 ambulatory care and outpatient clinics, 45 residential rehabilitation programs and 289 nonmedical vet centers, according to the agency's 2008 fiscal budget request.

In recent weeks, the VA has come under increasing pressure from top state election officials to offer voter registration services. In May, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen asked Peake to designate VA facilities in her state -- where an ongoing federal lawsuit on the issue is in the final stages of an appeal -- as a voter registration agency like motor vehicle departments. Then, in early July, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and the state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, were barred by the VA from entering a VA facility to register voters. They registered vets on the building's steps, including a 92-year-old World II veteran who said, "There was nobody here to do this last year."

Bysiewicz, whose state has its own state-run veterans homes where voter registration has never been a problem, then organized a campaign among top state election officials to urge the VA to change its policy. To date, two dozen top state election officials -- from both parties -- have signed a letter urging the VA allow voter registration drives. The National Association of Secretaries of State is meeting in Michigan this weekend and will consider a resolution urging the VA to offer the registration opportunities.

In the meantime, other prominent political leaders and voting rights advocates have refuted the VA's primary objections and also called for a change in policy. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and chair of a subcommittee overseeing the Hatch Act, which limits political activities by federal employees during business hours on government property, wrote to Peake, saying groups, partisan or not, could conduct registration drives without violating the Hatch Act.

On Monday, four leading voting rights groups also called on the VA to change its voter registration drive policy. Jim Dickson, vice president of American Association of Persons with Disabilities, one of the groups, said the decision whether a person was competent to vote was decided in court and by legal directives, not by VA personnel. He rejected the VA's claim that voter registration assistance would interfere with its medical mission. The other groups calling for a new VA policy were Common Cause, Demos and the League of Women Voters.

The prospect of new federal legislation in a presidential election year adds new pressure on the agency to alter its policies, especially as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are perhaps the foremost issue in the race.

"Our nation's service members and veterans have sacrificed so much for our country on the battlefield that we cannot allow them to fight another battle here at home for the benefits and rights they deserve," said Obama in a prepared statement. "Whether Americans are abroad serving in the armed forces, or recovering and living in VA facilities, it is critical that we ensure these brave men and women can exercise their right to vote. It is unacceptable that some veterans in VA facilities are not allowed access to voter registration services. I am proud to join Senators Feinstein and Kerry in their efforts to reverse the VA's current policies, and I urge my colleagues to support this legislation and quickly move it forward."

"Voting is a basic right for all Americans, and we should do what we can to remove obstacles to the right to vote, particularly for those who have served this country in uniform. This legislation will help ensure that the men and women who have fought to secure our nation will have their voices heard as part of our democracy," said Clinton.

The other senators all issued equally strong statements, including the senate majority leader, who rarely co-sponsors legislation.

"We must make it as easy as possible for all people to vote, especially the men and women who have defended that freedom for the rest of us," said Reid. "I urge my colleagues to support this important, commonsense legislation that provides veterans easy access to the voting process."

"The nation's disabled veterans have given extraordinary service to our country, and they deserve our efforts to provide the necessary help to ensure their full participation in our democracy," said Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair. "I hope the Senate quickly passes this important bill, and that the House and the president will act quickly so these steps can be enacted in time for the upcoming national elections."

"The right to vote is at the very heart of the democracy that our nation's veterans have fought so hard to protect," Murray said. "The VA knows firsthand how much our veterans have sacrificed and should make every attempt to make voting easier -- not harder -- for them. This legislation breaks down barriers to voting for our veterans and helps keep our commitment to protect the rights of those who have fought for us."

"Our nation's veterans have selflessly answered the call to serve. After being wounded defending our freedoms, many now require care at VA facilities," said Wyden. "We should be making it easier for them to exercise their right to vote -- not harder. This bill will right that wrong."

The proposed legislation would require the VA to make voter registration services available at its facilities in states that request it, under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. That includes providing registration forms, answering questions on registration issues and assisting with submitting voter registration forms, including absentee ballots. The bill also would allow nonpartisan groups and election officials to provide voter information and registration information to veterans and require an annual report to Congress.


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