July 22 Veteran Voting Rights: Congress Fights for Veterans, Senators Introduce Bill to Restore Veteran Voting Registration at VA Facilities

US Senate

New legislation would give veterans access to voter registration services at VA facilities

July 22, 2008 – U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) today introduced a bill to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide voter registration services to veterans in the department’s care.
The senators introduced the legislation after receiving a response from Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake earlier this month, again denying the senators’ request that Secretary Peake designate VA facilities as voter registration agencies. Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Barack Obama (D-Ill), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) are co-sponsors.
“This is about giving those who have fought to spread democracy and freedom the right to exercise that freedom in the voting booth,” Senator Feinstein said.  “I believe the cost of providing voter materials is minimal. And given the sacrifices that these men and woman have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do.”
“It shouldn’t have taken a legislative solution to fix a bureaucratic problem, but that’s what it’s come down to in the name of common sense and patriotism,” Senator Kerry said.  “Making it easier not harder for veterans to vote is the least we can do in our democracy for those who fought for democracy around the globe. The cost of getting these voter materials to veterans is tiny, but its meaning is bigger than any of us.”
“We must make it as easy as possible for all people to vote, especially the men and women who have defended that freedom for the rest of us,” Senator Reid said.  “I urge my colleagues to support this important, common sense legislation that provides veterans easy access to the voting process.”
“Our nation’s service members and veterans have sacrificed so much for our country on the battlefield that we cannot allow them to fight another battle here at home for the benefits and rights they deserve,” said Senator Obama.  “Whether Americans are abroad serving in the Armed Forces, or recovering and living in VA facilities, it is critical that we ensure these brave men and women can exercise their right to vote.  It is unacceptable that some veterans in VA facilities are not allowed access to voter registration services.  I am proud to join Senators Feinstein and Kerry in their efforts to reverse the VA’s current policies, and I urge my colleagues to support this legislation and quickly move it forward.”
“Voting is a basic right for all Americans, and we should do what we can to remove obstacles to the right to vote, particularly for those who have served this country in uniform.  This legislation will help ensure that the men and women who have fought to secure our nation will have their voices heard as part of our democracy,” said Senator Clinton.
“The nation’s disabled veterans have given extraordinary service to our country and they deserve our efforts to provide the necessary help to ensure their full participation in our democracy,” Senator Leahy said. “I hope the Senate quickly passes this important bill, and that the House and the President will act quickly so these steps can be enacted in time for the upcoming national elections.”
“It’s always the case that the more participation we have in our elections, the better. But we have a special obligation to ensure our veterans have unfettered access to the polls. This is a simple step that will help our service members exercise the very freedoms they help defend,” Senator Schumer said.
“The right to vote is at the very heart of the democracy that our nation’s veterans have fought so hard to protect,” Senator Murray said.  “The VA knows first-hand how much our veterans have sacrificed and should make every attempt to make voting easier – not harder – for them.  This legislation breaks down barriers to voting for our veterans and helps keep our commitment to protect the rights of those who have fought for us.”
“Our nation’s veterans have selflessly answered the call to serve. After being wounded defending our freedoms, many now require care at VA facilities,” said Senator Wyden. “We should be making it easier for them to exercise their right to vote – not harder. This bill will right that wrong.”
Specifically, the legislation would:
•        Require the VA to make voter registration services available at VA facilities in states that request it, in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act.  These services include providing voter registration forms, answering questions on registration issues and assisting with submitting voter registration forms.
•        Require the VA to assist veterans at facilities to receive and use absentee ballots if they choose to vote absentee. 
•        Allow non-partisan groups and election officials to provide voter information and registration information to veterans.
•        Require an annual report to Congress from the Department of Veterans Affairs on progress related to this legislation.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance, services to the disabled and at all motor vehicle offices. The Act also allows federal agencies to provide voter registration opportunities.
Many veterans live at VA facilities and some, especially those who are disabled, find it difficult to travel off-campus for services including voter registration. However, a federal appeals court recently ruled that voter registration groups do not have the right to register veterans on the grounds of VA facilities.
In light of the court decision, Senators Feinstein and Kerry wrote a letter in March to Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake to find ways to ensure that all veterans have access to voter registration materials and identify the policies they have in place to support voter registration.
On April 25, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a directive that required all VA facilities to develop comprehensive voter registration plans to assist veterans in voting. It also required the VA to publicly post voter registration information for veteran facility inpatients and required that VA facilities provide absentee voter applications if patients cannot leave the facility.
In May, the Department of Veterans Affairs withdrew that directive, and issued a new directive that introduced a broad prohibition against organizations conducting voter registration drives at VA facilities, including state and local election officials.
In response, the senators wrote a letter to Secretary Peake, saying the new policy could discourage involvement from non-partisan groups such as veterans service organizations and the League of Women Voters in helping veterans to vote.
Just prior to July 4, Connecticut’s Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz attempted to provide voter information and register residents at a West Haven Veterans Affairs facility.  Secretary Bysiewicz was denied entry to the VA facility under the VA’s directive.  Instead she sought to register veterans leaving the facility.  One such veteran who was registered to vote by the Secretary was Martin Onieal, 92, a World War II veteran.  Mr. Onieal told her “There was nobody here to do this last year.” 
Earlier this month, Senators Feinstein and Kerry along with Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) again wrote a letter to Secretary Peake to find ways to ensure that all veterans have access to voter registration materials and identify the policies they have in place to support voter registration.
Last week, Secretary Peake wrote back to the senators, denying their request to designate VA facilities as voter registration agencies. The senators today proposed the legislation in the wake of that denial.

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