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Bush Administration Stops Vets from Registering to Vote

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

The ability of injured veterans to vote in November's presidential election rests in the hands of Bush Administration officials, who have so far refused demands from advocates and lawmakers that the Department of Veterans Affairs help hospitalized veterans register to vote.

"'It is an insult to those who have fought to spread democracy and freedom overseas to be denied the right to participate in their own democracy here at home,'" wrote Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) to the Department of Veterans Affairs in March. "'If each facility took a few simple steps to provide voter registration materials, the VA could do its part to guarantee access to voter registration.'"

In response, VA Secretary James Peake opposed efforts by lawmakers to get the federal agency to provide voter registration opportunities under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 "'without any legal basis or rational explanation,'" said Kerry, as reported by AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld on April 10.

Peake claimed that "department policy restricts partisan political activities in VA facilities and the department also does not have the resources to be responsible for a large-scale voter registration effort," wrote Rick Maze of the Marine Corps News on April 18.

Peake was responding to Feinstein and Kerry, who had written the department in both March 2007 and 2008 concerning voter registration for veterans. The senators never received a reply to the 2007 letter from the former VA Secretary James Nicholson, although the VA has since "'engaged in litigation against voter registration efforts by third party groups in VA facilities,'" according to the senators' 2008 letter.

"The litigation cited in the senators' letter refers to Preminger v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Menlo Park suit where the VA argued before federal district and appeals courts that, in essence, political activity, including First Amendment speech and voter registration efforts, should not occur in its facilities because those activities were not medical in nature and were political, [veteran voting rights attorney Scott] Rafferty said, summarizing the litigation."

"'The argument that providing access to voter registration at facilities would distract from the medical goals is as unfortunate as it is counterproductive,'" the senators wrote. Not only is the "medical-only rationale" counterproductive, it is untrue, according to Rafferty. The attorney claims VA facilities have been used across the country for university libraries, parks, and even "pro-Republican demonstrations" as wells as partisan voter registration drives, according to a March 18 report by Rosenfeld.

The issue with voter registration at government agencies under NVRA is not exclusive to the Veterans Department.

"'America, among western democracies, is unique in putting the responsibility on the individual, not the state, to register voters,'" said Project Vote Deputy Director Michael Slater. "'Today, 63 million Americans, about a third of eligible voting age population, are not registered to vote.'"

"'When we try to shift the onus from the individual to the state, we see reluctance -- and the VA is one example,' Slater said, saying that many state social service agencies that already are required to offer voter registration opportunities to public aid recipients have not followed through." For example, if California registered as many food stamp recipients as Oregon, there would be an additional 180,000 voters in the state, he said.

"There is just this huge potential if government agencies like the VA finally offered voter registration."

"Veterans who have not previously registered, as well as registered voters who move, must reregister with new addresses in order to vote," an activity well-established at motor vehicle offices across the country, the most visible and well-implemented aspect of the NRVA (and the source of its "Motor Voter" nickname). "By not helping the injured veterans to do so," Rosenfeld wrote, "it is likely that former soldiers seeking care at VA facilities will lose their right to vote in 2008."

The senators "are planning their next move, which could include legislation to force VA to create a voter assistance program," Maze wrote. "However, congressional aides said it is unclear whether such a bill could be passed in time to make a difference for the November general election."

"Another approach could be to appeal directly to the White House to issue a presidential executive order requiring VA to distribute voter registration application forms, help patients fill them out and return the forms to state election officials." But, Maze wrote, "getting president Bush to issue such an order at the urging of two Senate Democrats is unlikely; Republican support would be needed."

In spite of the odds, "Kerry said he and Feinstein will "'keep fighting to ensure that veterans aren't facing unnecessary hurdles just to exercise their voting rights.'"

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