VA Ban on Voter Registration Drives for Injured Vets Becomes National Fight

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees medical care for injured veterans, is locked in a growing dispute with 19 secretaries of state -- Democrats and Republicans -- who are urging the federal agency to allow voter registration drives for former soldiers living at its facilities.

In a letter this week to Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, who earlier this month was barred from registering voters at a VA facility and has since been organizing top state election officials, Secretary of Veterans Affairs James B. Peake said his agency would not allow registration drives unless "these efforts be coordinated through the VA Voluntary Service (VAVS) office at each VA medical center."

"This policy is the result of careful deliberation and consideration for the needs and rights of our patients, concerns about disrupting facility operations, and the need to ensure VA is not involved in partisan political activities," Peake wrote in his July 15, 2008, letter.

Voter registration advocates said the VA policy will not help injured veterans to vote.

"It's official. State officials cannot help veterans vote," said Scott Rafferty, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has been fighting the VA in court to allow voter registration drives at its Menlo Park campus in northern California. "No one, except fingerprinted volunteers, can tell them anything about elections -- and only if they ask."

"No VA staff can help. That's been made clear, too," he said. "It's unbelievable."

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, criticized the latest VA policy.

"VA just threw up their hands and surrendered the voting rights for possibly hundreds of thousands of our veterans," he said. "VA’s weak and indefensible position is all the more striking, shocking, and shameful due the fact some of our veterans now in VA facilities are recovering from battle wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan."

Bysiewicz could not be reached for comment Thursday, but her spokesman Av Harris said the Connecticut secretary of state intended to hold a press conference on Friday addressing the VA's response.

The VA's response to Bysiewicz and 18 other top state election officials is the latest volley in an escalating national political fight that may not be settled by either the VA or secretaries of state, but instead will require federal legislation or a federal court ruling.

In recent weeks, several top U.S. senators with jurisdiction over veterans' issues have urged the VA to change its policy to enable more former soldiers to vote in the 2008 election. Those efforts have included a rebuke by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chair, telling the VA that its claim that voter registration drives were "partisan" was unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the California lawsuit involving the VA's Menlo Park facility is in the final stages of an appeals process, and a federal court is expected to issue its ruling in the near future. That ruling, should it permit registration drives, could have a more immediate effect than new federal legislation that would have to go through the law-making process.

Other developments this week also confirmed that the issue is becoming a national concern -- and increasingly politicized.

The National Association of Secretaries of State also forwarded Peake's letters to all top state election officials and said in an accompanying letter that it hoped the organization could pass a resolution on this issue at its upcoming semiannual meeting later this month.

The 19 states calling on the VA to allow registration drives are: Connecticut, Washington, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont, Montana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Iowa, Missouri, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire and Oregon. The District of Columbia has joined the effort as well.

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