Veterans’ Affairs Bars Voter Registration Drives

by Sarah Massey of Project Vote on August 21, 2008

How would you feel if you’d been wounded fighting for democracy abroad, only to come home and have your own right to vote undermined by the Department of Veterans Affairs? That’s exactly what has been happening since May, when the VA officially banned voter registration drives from its hospitals—a decision that could deny voting opportunities to thousands of wounded and elderly veterans in VA hospitals all over the country. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 permits VA hospitals, along with other public agencies, to provide voter registration services. But in May 2008 the VA issued a directive that bars all voter registration drives from hospitals.

Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz saw the results of this policy first-hand during a recent visit to help register voters at the Veteran Affairs Hospital in West Haven. As she explained recently in the New York Times, the Secretary of State was not allowed to enter the hospital to provide information on voting or to help veterans with their registration forms.

Outside the hospital, Bysiewicz met 92-year-old veteran Martin ONieal, a hospital resident who had lost a leg in WWII. ONieal recounted to Bysiewicz how he had tried to register to vote in 2006, but the hospital staff couldnt help him. Fortunately, Bysiewicz pulled some voter registration forms out of her car and got ONieal registered, along with a few other vets she met on the sidewalk. But she was not allowed to enter to help anyone else.

According to a letter by Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake, the VA remains opposed to becoming a voter registration agency pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act. The VA justifies this decision by saying that federal employees are not allowed to participate in partisan activities. But registering people to vote is not a partisan activity. Why is the VA so determined to make it harder for hospitalized veterans of our armed forces to vote? A disabled veteran of war should not be required to limp out of his hospital bed to track down a voter registration form. No American should be asked to jump through hoops on his or her way to the ballot box, says Michael Slater, Executive Director of Project Vote.

The VA is not unique in its response to the requirements of the NVRA, Slater explains. Many government agencies make excuses to avoid providing voter registration services. A recent report by Project Vote and Demos shows that states across the nation are failing in their duty under NVRA to offer voter registration opportunities through public agencies. And, with few exceptions, the Department of Justice has ignored these violations and refused to hold the states accountable.

But the VAs denial of its obligations to veterans is drawing attention and outrage. Secretary Bysiewicz is not alone in trying to leverage the VA to comply with the NVRA and provide opportunities to register to vote. A bipartisan group of 21 secretaries of state have joined a national campaign to overturn the VA ban on voter registration drives. And, as discussed yesterday by Politico, a bill backed by forty-four congressional Democrats would reverse this directive and allow voter registration drives again in VA hospitals. Among other organizations, the bill is backed by Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The bill, HR 6625, states that veterans serving in foreign wars have performed a great service to, and risked the greatest sacrifice in the name of, our country. It calls on the Department of Veteran Affairs to make every effort to assist veterans to register to vote and to vote.

Project Vote is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes voting in low-income and minority communities. With offices in Washington, DC, and Little Rock, AR, Project Vote’s staff are experts in the field of voting rights, election law and large-scale voter contact programs.Reporters are invited to come out on a voter registration drive in Albuquerque, Cleveland, Denver, or Orlando.

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