Top Senator And 10 States Attack VA for Banning Voter Registration Drives

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), has called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse its new policy barring voting rights groups, "partisan or otherwise," from holding voter registration drives on campuses where injured veterans are living or receiving medical care.

"Veterans receiving care at VA facilities risked life and limb to defend the freedoms we enjoy, including the right to vote," Akaka said in a July 10 letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake. "Current VA policy makes it unnecessarily difficult for some veterans to participate in the electoral process." Akaka said the VA's most recent explanation for barring registration drives -- that they would violate the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in political activities on official time or federal property -- made no sense.

"The Office of Special Counsel has issued policy statements that federal employees may assist in non-partisan voter registration drives on federal property and on official time without violating the Hatch Act," said Akaka, who also chairs a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Act. "In addition, the Hatch Act does not prohibit outside groups, partisan or otherwise, from registering voters at a VA facility if federal employees do not participate."

Akaka's letter was also signed by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who repeatedly have urged the VA to designate itself as a voter registration agency like state motor vehicle departments, where the public is asked by staffers if they would like to register to vote. Under current VA policy, vets have to specifically ask for that assistance before the VA will help former soldiers to register and to vote.

"There is no reason why the Department of Veterans Affairs should not proactively assist veterans in exercising their right to vote. To do otherwise is an insult to the sacrifices these men and women have made for our country," the joint letter said.

A spokeswoman at the VA's public affairs office declined to comment Thursday, saying, "We can't discuss correspondence with you."

The senators' letter comes as several secretaries of state unsuccessfully have been pressuring the VA to allow voter registration drives at its facilities. Just before July 4th, the VA barred Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal from entering its West Haven facility to help register voters. Instead, in a widely reported media account, the pair helped a 92-year-old vet to register on the building's steps. He thanked her, saying no one offered him that chance "last year."

Moreover, after the July 4th weekend, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed wrote to his state's congressional delegation, asking them to review the VA policy on employees helping patients to complete voter registration forms or ballots.

"Our office still disagrees with the federal department's directive that prohibits voter registration drives by VA employees or nonprofit organizations in VA facilities," Reed said. "We believe it disenfranchises the rights of potential voters, and we hope that Congress will address this matter."

Reed also said the VA's claim the Hatch Act barred such activity was mistaken.

Also Thursday, Reed, a Republican, and Bysiewicz, a Democrat, announced a national bipartisan effort "among secretaries of state to overturn" the VA's May 5th directive banning the registration drives. So far, 10 secretaries of state have joined the effort, including officials from Ohio, Minnesota, Vermont, Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Kansas.

Despite the new political pressure, it is not clear if the VA will change its policy long enough before the close of registration in early fall for the 2008 presidential election. However, an ongoing lawsuit on this very issue now on appeal in federal court in northern California may force the VA to change its voter registration policies.

In that case, the plaintiff, Steven Preminger, the chairman of the San Mateo County Democratic Party, sued the VA for the right to register voters at the VA's Menlo Park facility, south of San Francisco. The agency repeatedly rejected requests to allow the drives, saying that would be "partisan" and interfere with its medical mission.

"We recognize and respect the need for VA to guard against any activities that might interfere with carrying out the Department's mission to furnish quality health care services to veterans," the senators wrote. "However, we are confident that voter registration activity can be permitted that would not impinge on fulfilling that responsibility."

Scott Rafferty, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has been working for years on the Preminger litigation, said senator's latest letter vindicated his client's claims.

"It is a complete vindication of Mr. Preminger's position that this was politically biased voter suppression and an attempt to keep minority vets who oppose the war from voting and even stating their opinions," he said.

"In the near future, the Ninth Circuit (Court of Appeals) will see all the documents," Rafferty said, referring to the senators' letters, adding he expected the federal appeals court would act well before the November election.


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