July 13, 2008

VA treats disabled vets like second-class citizens

Posted in Elections, John Kerry, politics, Veterans Administration policy on voter registration, Vets + voting, voter registration, voter suppression, voting, Voting Rights tagged , , , at 5:13 pm by bluebanshee

Those who have been wounded in service to their country deserve better.  The Veterans’ Administration has decreed that voter registration drives may not be conducted in VA facilities.  The VA is putting unnecessary barriers between veterans and their right to vote. At any given time there may be 100,000 vets living in VA facilities — and the number is growing as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on.

Who more than our wounded warriors deserves to have their right to exercise the franchise?  Who indeed?  These vets have put their lives on the line and now the VA says that voter registration activities would “interfere with” delivery of services at VA facilities.

Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz,  expresses the frustration of many Americans when hearing of the VA policy against voter registration drives.

“The practice of banning voter registration drives at veterans facilities is a slap in the face to people who have served, put their lives on the line and sacrificed the most for our fundamental freedoms,” Connecticut Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, a Democrat, said in a Friday [July 12] news conference. http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080712/NEWS/80712006/-1/rss

Bysiewicz is among top election officials from ten states protesting the VA ban on voter registration drives in VA facilities.  These include Republican Sam Reed of Washington, as well as the Secretaries of State from Vermont, Ohio, Montana, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Kansas, New Hampshire and Maine.

Non partisan groups like the League of Women Voters have been barred from conducting voter registration drives at VA facilities in a number of states.  Even the chief election officers in several states have not been able to enter VA facilities with voter registration forms in hand ready to sign up eligible vets.

The problem is compounded by the fact that injured vets are frequently rehabbing at places far from their home towns where they may have previously been registered to vote.  Now they are in a new city and possibly a new state with unfamiliar election laws and no circle of friends and family in the area to help out with voter registration.

Vets who are undergoing long-term rehabilitation in VA facilities need a helping hand, not an unnecessary roadblock to participating in the most fundamental process of our democracy, casting a vote and making their voice heard in selecting our leaders.

A recent New York Times report noted that this ban on voter registration drives includes not only VA hospitals but also federally run nursing homes, shelters for the homeless and rehabilitation centers across the country.  Critics of this policy include both non-partisan voting rights groups and  the  officials whose duties include voter registration and election administration in the states.  Those expressing concern include include both local election officials and Secretaries of State across the country.  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/washington/13vote.html?_r=1&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin

Mary G. Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters, said: “It just seems wrong to the league that the V.A. is erecting barriers to voter registration for our nation’s veterans. They appear to be using technicalities to block many veterans from registering to vote.”

Among the election officials being heard from is a supervisor of elections in  Florida whose county includes many military personnel.

“I’m very dismayed that they won’t even allow groups that have a long-established reputation of doing nonpartisan work,” said Pat Hollarn, a Republican and supervisor of elections for Okaloosa County, Fla., which has more than 50,000 veterans.

Ms. Hollarn said the new directive had meant that she had to cancel plans for a voter registration drive with the League of Women Voters this month at the veterans’ clinic just outside Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

Not only local election officials have expressed dismay at this changed VA policy.  Some Secretaries of State have taken action to remedy the situation.

In May, officials rejected a request by the California secretary of state, Debra Bowen, asking that federal veterans sites in her state become official voter-registration agencies. That would require them to distribute registration materials and help applicants fill out the cards and return them.

SOS Bowen is not satisfied with the response from the VA to her request.

In her request, Ms. Bowen cited a 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton requiring federal agencies to undertake the responsibility of registration when asked to do so by state election officials. A spokeswoman for Ms. Bowen said she was considering litigation.

The rationale from the VA for this decision is that providing access to voter registration to vets in California would be too costly and would distract from the core mission of providing health care.  On the other hand, the VA takes responsibility for providing food, laundry and mail services for vets in these facilities.  It is hard to see why providing voter registration forms to be filled out and then turning them in to the proper state agency would be an extraordinary burden.

Currently, the VA policy is that veterans  living in VA facilities must proactively request to be given a voter registration form.  It is not readily available.  This puts the onerous burden on the vets, not on the agency which takes care of their other needs.

The VA policy is drawing attention from Capitol Hill:

On May 6, two Democratic senators, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California, sent a letter to the secretary of veterans affairs, James B. Peake, criticizing the order as a step backward and seeking further justification for it.

So far they have not received a satisfactory response from the VA.

The  controversy about voter registration drives at VA facilities erupted  in April after the VA issued Directive 2008-023, “Voting Assistance for VA Patients,” allowing voter registration drives in VA hospitals, only to reverse itself on May 5 with Directive 2008-025.

A complete history of the VA policy switches regarding voter registration deives at VA facilities can be found at OMBWatch.org.  Particularly useful posts include this one from June 13. http://www.ombwatch.org/article/blogs/entry/5111/53   Here’s another one that provides some good background info.   http://www.ombwatch.org/article/articleview/4253/1/490?TopicID=1

So far this issue has been under the radar for the MSM, except for a handful of voting rights activists and election officials.    It is important to bring this to the attention of the wider voting public and public officials.

Veterans participation the political process could be particularly important this year in a presidential election in which the handling of the Iraq war and treatment of veterans will be major campaign issues.

But vets can only make their voices heard at the ballot box if they are able to first register.  The VA should not be treating disabled vets like second-class citizens.  The VA should be making voter registration easier in their facilities, not harder.  It may take a public outcry to make this happen.

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