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Veterans Advocates Skeptical of New V.A. Registration Policies

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

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We recently wrote about the Department of Veterans Affairs decision to open its facilities to voter registration drives after months of urging by voting rights groups and elected officials. This week, however, "VA voter suppression continues," as AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld wrote Tuesday, with voter registration efforts being blocked in California and the VA general counsel criticizing the pending Veterans Voting Support Act (S. 3308), which would bolster federal protection of voter registration opportunities for all wounded veterans. With just three weeks left to register voters in most states, advocates say now is the time to support voter registration efforts in VA facilities and, most importantly, it needs to be explicitly protected from now on through federal law.

"Credibility of VA on this issue is very low right now," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. during a hearing on the Veterans Voting Support Act on Monday, according to Rick Maze of the Army Times. VA general counsel Paul Hutter says that the VA is being "proactive" in working with election officials and nonprofit groups to facilitate voter registration, but that "VA still believes that some limits are needed."

These limits were enforced this week at a San Francisco VA facility when the nonprofit group Veterans for Peace was blocked from helping register voters in time for the 2008 presidential election. According to Rosenfeld, the group filed a legal motion in California federal court Monday, claiming that VA was trying to require Veterans for Peace members to go through the same screening process that VA volunteers must go through - a process that would delay registration efforts. "In contrast, the VA does not require screening for most other visitors," Rosenfeld says.

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Citing testimony from the Senate Rules and Administration hearing on S. 3308, the motion notes that of the 5.5 million patients in VA facilities, volunteers registered only 350 patients and 64 outpatients. "Those statistics show the VA's internal process of screening volunteers who are then approved to register voters has had the effect of suppressing the vote of injured veterans in 2008," writes  Rosenfeld.

As VA voter registration is administered solely at the whim of the VA itself, advocates warn that, without a federal mandate to provide voter registration and information to the nation's wounded veterans, their right to vote could easily be lost. "VA can easily reverse course, again, and issue another policy banning voting assistance," or could "easily fail to implement their new policy," says Veterans for Common Sense executive director and S. 3308 supporter, Paul Sullivan.

Hutter claims a broad interpretation of the proposed law would open VA facilities as a voter registration agency to the public, potentially disrupting VA facilities and invading privacy of patients. Feinstein says that the intent of the bill is not to serve the public and that she is willing to make amendments.

"However, she did not see disruption as a major problem," Maze writes, "because setting up a voter registration drive could be as simple as putting a table in the lobby of a hospital or clinic."

In a recent New York Times report announcing the new VA policy, writer Ian Urbina quotes Sen. Feinstein: "Given the sacrifices that the men and women who have fought in our armed services have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do."

The companion bill to S. 3308, H.R. 6625 passed the House by voice vote on Wednesday.

 

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Quick Links:

S 3308: Veterans Voting Support Act

Senate Committee on Rules and Administration

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

H.R. 6625: Veterans Voting Support Act

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