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2008's First Disenfranchised Voters: Injured and Homeless Vets

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2008's First Disenfranchised Voters:
Injured and Homeless Veterans
By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet

Posted on August 11, 2008
http://www.alternet.org/story/94541/

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The first large block of voters to be disenfranchised in 2008 are the
wounded warriors from recent wars and homeless veterans living at hundreds
of Department of Veterans Affairs facilities across the country, according
to veterans and voting rights activists.

"President Bush and Karl Rove are attempting to block voter registration of
at least 200,000 and possibly as much as 400,000 veterans," said Paul
Sullivan, president of Veterans for Common Sense, referring to injured
former soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in various VA
treatment facilities, veterans living in the VA's nursing homes, and
homeless veterans living in VA shelters.

"We may have all kinds of hurdles," Sullivan said. "We may have the clock
running out on us, but we will not give up. This needs to be shoved in the
face of every single elected official in the country. We can fix this in a
second We are talking about two or three sentences in legislation. We are
talking about the integrity of our democracy."

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In recent months, the Department of Veterans Affairs has resisted efforts by
U.S. senators and top state election officials to allow voter registration
drives in its facilities. Just last month, the VA issued new rules that
banned election officials -- whether local registrars or secretaries of
state -- from registering voters, saying it was a partisan activity that
interfered with its medical mission. In most states, any time a person
changes their residence they must update their voter registration in order
to vote.

The VA's ban on registration drives, even by state constitutional officers,
provoked a rebuke from the National Association of Secretaries of State -- a
resolution urging the VA to rescind its policy -- and revived the issue in
Congress, where separate House and Senate bills would force the VA to become
a voter registration agency like state motor vehicle departments, where
people are proactively given an opportunity to register to vote. Under the
VA's current policy, any resident in its facilities must seek help with
voter registration and voting.

The problem with the congressional efforts, according to Sullivan and others
following this issue, is that the VA appears to be on course to run out the
clock before meaningful voter registration drives could be undertaken for
this year's presidential election.

Under the most optimistic scenario, even if the Congress passed legislation
within a week of reconvening, which would be mid-September, the president
would have two weeks to sign it into law. That timeline places the bill's
potential adoption very close to the first week in October, when voter
registration closes for the November election in 27 states. Moreover, at
that time, state election officials would have little time to organize and
implement voter registration drives, voting rights activists said.

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"This is a bill you can't vote against," said Scott Rafferty, who sued the
VA in 2004 when the agency blocked voter registration efforts by Democrats
at its campus in Menlo Park, California, but allowed the Republican Party
onto the campus to register voters. "But it is almost physically impossible
to get it passed and implemented in time."

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the
Menlo Park appeal, upholding the VA's right to regulate voter registration
activities at its facilities. The court said the agency could bar anyone
from its grounds because of a presumed affiliation with a political party,
Rafferty said.

The Appeals Court ruling means only Congress can change the VA policy.

"There may be one ace in the hole," Veteran for Common Sense's Sullivan
said, "and that is a funding bill. If we can get any of this legislation
tacked onto a funding bill, the president has to sign it."

Congressional staffers said the issue was a priority and would see action
after Congress reconvenes in September. Yet there is little evidence to
suggest the VA would abide by such a law before the presidential election.
VA officials have stated in recent forums that the agency was opposed to
allowing voter registration drives, even by election officials. Its lawyers
said so much before the Ninth Circuit in June during a hearing on the Menlo
Park litigation, and more recently at the secretaries of states' conference
in late July. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit ruling fortifies the agency's
stance.

In fact, just last week in Connecticut, where the Secretary of State, Susan
Bysiewicz, was allowed into a VA facility to register voters after
threatening to sue the agency -- after Bysiewicz and the state's attorney
general were turned away in July -- VA officials sought to limit her efforts
to register VA staff or outpatients, her staff said, saying that could be
construed as a voter registration drive. Those VA officials also resisted
her request to return this fall to show residents how new voting machines
worked.

"This is not a solution," said Av Harris, her spokesman, saying the VA
simply made enough concessions to blunt the threatened suit. "If the other
secretaries of state are not as active as we are, the VA will not do
anything for them."

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  TomPaine.com  and many newspapers. (more...)
 

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