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States Apply Pressure to Allow Voter Registration Drives in Veterans' Facilities

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs for months has been embroiled in a controversy over its prohibition on voter registration drives in veterans' facilities.  Now 10 Secretaries of State and the Attorney General of Connecticut have stepped into the maelstrom, demanding that the VA reverse its policy.  Late last month, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal attempted to register voters at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Haven.  They were prevented by staff from registering voters inside the facility, but they were able to register a dozen veterans as they were leaving.  One newly registered voter is 92-year-old WWII veteran Martin Onieal.

Controversy over voter registration activities in veterans' facilities has been brewing for some time, largely due to the efforts of Steven Rosenfeld at Alternet who has covered the story thoroughly.  In response to a court ruling earlier this year which held that voter registration groups do not have a right to access VA facilities, Senators Feinstein and Kerry wrote to the VA Secretary urged that VA facilities be designated as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act.  At first the response from the VA was that helping veteran register to vote would be “partisan”? and therefore inappropriate.  After significant attention in the press, a directive was released that required every VA facility to develop a comprehensive voter registration plan to assist veterans with registration.  However, the VA quickly backtracked, stipulating that veterans would only be helped if they requested assistance and no voter registration drives would be permitted.

Secretaries of State Take Action: In response to more questioning from Senators Feinstein and Kerry, the VA has defended its position by claiming that allowing voter registration would interfere with its mission of serving veterans, and that doing so would also violate the Hatch Act which prevents public employees from engaging in political activities at work.  This tortured reasoning seems to have laid bare the VA’s true concern, which appears merely to be that veterans might vote in large numbers.  In response, Secretaries of State Bysiewicz of Connecticut and Reed of Washington have brought together a bi-partisan group of Secretaries of State from across the country to demand that the VA open up its facilities to non-partisan voter education and registration activities.  They are joined by Attorney General Blumenthal who has written a legal opinion attacking the VA's bogus justifications for the voter registration ban.

The involvement of the Secretaries of State is important as they are responsible for ensuring that all eligible voters in their states have the opportunity to register and vote.  This is no less important for veterans of our armed services, and shouldn't depend upon whether or not they reside at a VA facility.  The reality here is that not only are our veterans being disrespected by the federal government, which shows no interest in helping them exercise their basic civic rights, but their voice is actively being silenced by a VA system that is supposed to be supporting them.  Hopefully, as the states bring more pressure on the VA to reverse course, we will finally see some movement in the VA's unconscionable position.

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