June 12, 2008 – An attorney for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs hospitals and homeless shelters for veterans, told a federal appeals court Thursday that the VA could not conceive of any circumstance where voter registration drives could occur at its facilities.
“This is an activity that could be seen as harming the appearance of the VA’s neutrality,” said Owen Martikan, assistant U.S. attorney representing the agency, adding voter registration drives would interfere with patient medical care and also violate the federal Hatch Act, which limits federal employees from participating in political campaign activities.
“If you cure the problem of overt partisanship, you are creating another problem,” Martikan said. “Once you let in someone else, you are not being neutral unless you let everyone in.”
But Scott Rafferty, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has spent several years arguing the VA must allow voter registration drives to help wounded former soldiers register and vote, disagreed.
“Integrating veterans into the communities that they live in is the highest honor we can award veterans,” Rafferty told the court.
The issue before a federal appeals court in San Francisco is whether restrictions on voter registration drives at the VA’s campus in nearby Menlo Park are unconstitutional.
The case has national significance. The VA has facilities across the country serving thousands of veterans. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton ordered the VA to help register veterans. However, the VA ceased allowing voter registration drives during the Bush administration.
Several U.S. senators and California’s secretary of state, all Democrats, have asked the VA to become a voter registration agency like motor vehicle departments. This spring, the VA issued a new policy saying it would help vets — who asked for help — to register and to vote. The VA also said it would allow nonpartisan voter registration drives, but then rescinded the policy on registration drives.
The suit before the federal appeals court is revisiting the question of whether Steve Preminger, chair of the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee — where the Menlo Park facility is located — has standing to question the constitutionality of the VA’s policy.
On Thursday, judges from the three-judge panel asked the VA if there was any circumstance where it could conceive of a nonpartisan voter registration drive. One judge said students at her daughter’s high school were given voter registration forms when they are 17-1/2 years old — and asked why veterans cannot be given the same opportunity?
“It’s a different environment than a school,” Martikan said. “It means diverting resources from patient care.”
Another judge laid out a scenario where anyone who would participate in voter registration efforts would not wear campaign buttons or say what party they belonged to. He asked if the VA would object to a voter registration drive if participants were told “no partisan activities.”
That would not satify the VA, Martikan said, saying, the “VA has different interests.”
Martikan said that Preminger and an associate came onto the VA campus in a car that had an “impeach Bush” bumper sticker. “They introduced themselves as members of the Democratic Party,” he said, adding it was a fiction that registration drive participants could “pretend to be nonpartisan.”
After the hearing, Preminger said his attempts to register voters were neither overtly partisan nor disruptive.
“I don’t carry myself that way — not at all,” he said.
Preminger said Republican Party volunteers have been able to visit the Menlo Park facility to register voters.