Connecticut Vows to Sue VA Over Ban on Veteran Voting Rights

New Haven Register (Connecticut)

July 19, 2008 – To participate in voter registration at the Veterans Affairs medical center in West Haven, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz would have to promise not to encourage anyone to vote and to limit registration to inpatients or residents who approached her.

“The VA’s convoluted constraints and restrictions on registration, and complete ban on voter education, plainly violate democratic rights — the very rights that these veterans fought and sacrificed to preserve and protect,” state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Friday.

In Round 3 of the battle between the VA and Bysiewicz’s efforts to hold registration drives at federal veteran facilities, both she and Blumenthal Friday gave James Peake, U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, until Aug. 1 to change the rules or face a possible suit by Connecticut.

Bysiewicz is one of 20 secretaries of the state who have urged Peake to reverse a ruling he issued in May which puts shelters, hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers administered by the VA off limits to nonpartisan voter registration drives.

Peake said such drives would violate the Hatch Act, which restricts partisan political activity by federal workers.

For years, however, voter registration was left up to VA managers, and Roger Johnson, director of VA Connecticut Healthcare Systems, agreed with Blumenthal when the issue was first broached last month in West Haven that the Hatch Act referred to workers, not patients.

At the time, Johnson predicted Bysiewicz’s request to run an education program demonstrating use of the new state voting machines would not be a problem, and he was just waiting to hear from Peake.

After Peake’s recent letter to the state officials, however, Johnson said such a demonstration was not necessary, as the only veterans who would be affected are in-patients and residents who would likely use absentee ballots.

Johnson said the medical center in West Haven will notify all in-patients and residents that they will provide volunteers to help them register to vote, if they so desire. He said they will hold another “blitz” close to the last day of regular voter registration, and on Election Day.

Off-limits to registration are out-patients, staff, visitors and the community.

“To respect constitutional rights, the VA should go back to boot camp. Where veterans deserve a clear path to the voting booth, the VA has laid a maze and minefield of regulatory barricades and booby traps,” Blumenthal said.

He said the restrictions “chill or discourage valid fundamental constitutional rights,” and Bysiewicz could not agree to the rules set up for volunteers who wish to help the patients register.

At the state’s facility for veterans at Rocky Hill, Blumenthal said registrations are held several times a year. He said it appears that the only reason for the “misguided federal policy,” is an attempt at voter suppression.

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