Our view: Helping veterans vote – VA should immediately rescind its ban on nonpartisan registration drives
If anyone deserves to vote, it’s a warrior wounded while protecting America’s freedoms. But Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake has thrown voting rights for injured vets in its hospitals, rehab centers, shelters and nursing homes out the window with a wrong-headed decision in May to ban registration drives by outside groups.
One such group is the nonpartisan Florida League of Women Voters. A planned league registration drive at a VA clinic in the Panhandle was canceled in June when the Okaloosa County supervisor of elections got cold feet about fighting for vets’ right to vote and nixed it.
The ban affects thousands of Florida vets, such as those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and receiving care at Bay Pines hospital and rehab center in Pinellas County, Orlando VA Medical Center, Brevard’s Viera VA Clinic and thousands of others around the nation.
The clamp down has angered leaders in Congress, such as Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and state election officials nationwide.
Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning opposes the policy change, but the Sunshine State has yet to officially join 19 other states from Connecticut to Montana demanding a reversal of the ban.
It should, and do so at once.
Peake defends his move by saying voter drives might disrupt facility operations and give the appearance the VA is taking part in partisan politics, citing the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activities of federal employees on official time. But the Hatch Act pertains to federal workers, not volunteer groups.
And prior to May VA managers could make their own decisions about letting nonpartisan groups help vets register.
That’s why the sudden policy reversal smells suspiciously like an attempt to dampen turnout of vets confined to hospitals and homes, some of them severely disabled, in November.
VA officials say patients can still receive aid registering if they request it, but there’s no denying the new policy makes it harder, not easier, from them to do so.
That’s unacceptable. And why veterans groups like Veterans of Foreign Wars and Veterans for Common Sense rightly want Peake to lift the ban.
That said, legislation introduced Tuesdsay in Congress to force Peake’s hand goes too far because it also would require VA facilities be designated official voter registration agencies.
That opens a can of worms as to whether the general public would be allowed to register at them, creating legal hassles and more work for VA staffers.
The best solution is for Peake to immediately stand up for veterans’ rights by admitting his error and rescinding the ban.
That way League of Women Voters volunteers and other nonpartisan groups can work to get as many vets as possible registered in time for the November election.
Failing that, the proposed law should be revised to drop the side issues but permit groups to continue running drives in VA facilities, and passed quickly.