“Private nursing homes conduct registration drives,” noted Paul Sullivan of the group Veterans for Common Sense, but “we are not aware of any efforts VA has taken to assist veterans with registering and voting. The goal of President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and VA Secretary James Peake is to run out the clock so that no voter assistance is provided to our hundreds of thousands of hospitalized and homeless veterans,” Sullivan argued. “If President Bush and Karl Rove run out the clock, then our veterans and our democracy lose. Shame on Bush, Rove, and Peake for undermining the voting rights of our disabled veterans during a time of war.”
August 26, 2008, San Francisco, CA – As citizens across the United States gear up for a historic and highly competitive set of national, state, and local elections this November, a federal government policy is keeping voter registration groups away from thousands of elderly and disabled military veterans.
When Silicon Valley labor organizer Steve Preminger went over his precinct maps in 2004, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Of the 400 veterans who lived at the nearby Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Menlo Park nursing home, only one had voted in the year 2000. So Preminger, who also heads a local chapter of the Democratic Party, gathered together a stack of voter registration cards, and he and a friend began walking the halls looking for veterans who were interested in registering to vote.
“We thought registering people to vote is as American as apple pie,” he said. “Who better to reach out to than those who have sacrificed so much for this country?”
Almost immediately, VA officials threw him out. “We got summarily evicted by a supervisor who was re-enforced by security.”
The VA has since explained that its decision to evict Preminger was part of a Bush Administration policy that bars outside groups from registering voters who live in VA nursing homes, hospitals, and transitional housing for homeless veterans.
In an e-mailed response to questions for this story, VA press secretary Alison Aikele said that “designating a VA hospital as a voter registration site” would make it harder for the government to care for wounded veterans. It “would be disruptive to the quality care we provide our veterans,” she said.
Veterans groups have expressed outrage over the policy, which they say is disenfranchising as many as 400,000 veterans who often do not know they need to re-register to vote when they move into a VA facility and it becomes their official, state-sanctioned address. The VA has even barred local elections officials from carrying out voter registration drives.
In June, the VA barred Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal from entering its West Haven facility to help register voters.
Preminger has gone to court to get the policy overturned and has been joined in his complaint by elections officials in 22 states. “During visiting hours anyone can come into a VA facility and talk to veterans about the weather or sports,” attorney Scott Rafferty said. “We should be able to come in and talk to these same Americans and ask them if they want to register to vote and who they want to vote for.”
But the wheels of American justice can be slow, and with another presidential election just two months away, Preminger’s case is still working its way through the courts.
Meanwhile, the VA has refused to soften its position. On May 5, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a new rule, VHA DIRECTIVE 2008-025, which states succinctly: “to avoid disruptions to facility operations, voter registration drives are not permitted.”
Veterans’ advocates are now looking toward Congress to overrule the VA policy. They’re hoping the House and Senate will speed through the “Veteran Voting Support Act” as soon as lawmakers return from major party political conventions in September. They say the bill, which would overturn the VA’s policy and allow voter registration drives, must be passed immediately if veteran voters are to be reached — and in many cases re-enfranchised — ahead of November’s election.
In the meantime, non-partisan veterans organizations wait for the chance to register their fellow veterans to vote.
“Private nursing homes conduct registration drives,” noted Paul Sullivan of the group Veterans for Common Sense, but “we are not aware of any efforts VA has taken to assist veterans with registering and voting.”
“The goal of President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and VA Secretary James Peake is to run out the clock so that no voter assistance is provided to our hundreds of thousands of hospitalized and homeless veterans,” Sullivan argued. “If President Bush and Karl Rove run out the clock, then our veterans and our democracy lose. Shame on Bush, Rove, and Peake for undermining the voting rights of our disabled veterans during a time of war.”