Update: September 19, 11:18 a.m.The House passed its companion legislation, H.R.6625. Howard Gantman, Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, said that negotiations on the Senate bill are “moving along” and he expects an agreement on the final language will be reached “in the next day or so.” In addition to the VA, veterans groups, and voting rights organizations, both Democratic and Republican leadership are involved in the discussions with the hope that the final bill will receive expedited approval before Congress recesses.
When a prospective enlistee shows up at a US Armed Forces Recruitment Center, the recruiter asks whether the individual would like to register to vote. But for the veteran returning home – even one now residing at a VA facility so that their previous voter registration is no longer valid – the Department of Veterans Affairs is under no such obligation.
Many voting rights groups and advocates for veterans are trying to rectify this injustice by providing voter registration drives at VA facilities. Initially, the VA stood in the way – banning nonpartisan groups, election officials, and registration drives at its facilities. In July, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz was literally turned away at the door of a VA facility where she wanted to show veterans how to use new voting equipment.
In response, Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry introduced the Veteran Voting Support Act(S. 3308) that would require the VA to allow nonpartisan voter registration drives and comply with any state’s request that the VA itself offer voter registration at its facilities under the National Voter Registration Act(NVRA). Barack Obama is a cosponsor of the bill, John McCain isn’t. It seems Senator McCainnot Support This is once again out of touch – even with the veterans to whom he claims devotion. The legislation is supported by groups across the nation, including: Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, American Association of Retired Persons, Veterans for Common Sense, American Association of Persons with Disabilities, Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Demos, League of Women Voters, and others. Companion legislation has already passed the House Administration Committee, where members recognized that the least Congress can do for the men and women who put their lives on the line for this nation is go an extra mile to support their right to vote – a basic tenet of our democracy.
On September 8, just days before a Senate hearing on the bill, the VA apparently reversed itself, issuing a directive to lift the ban on election officials and non-partisan groups assisting with voter registration. The reversal was good news, but it was also the third time in five months that the VA had revised its policy, and so when the rescheduled hearing rolled around on Monday, Senator Feinstein – Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration – was understandably skeptical of the VA’s commitment to implementing a new approach.
“Candidly,” Senator Feinstein told Paul Hutter, General Counsel of the VA, “the credibility of the VA is very low on this issue right now.”
And it should be.
Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel for Demos – a public policy and voting rights center leading a national effort to support registration at VA offices – testified that according to US Census data, 5.3 million veterans (or 23.2% of all veterans) were unregistered in 2006. Senator Feinstein noted that 50% of veterans ages 18-24 aren’t registered to vote either. Paul Sullivan, Executive Director of Veterans for Common Sense, pointed out that the “VA has a notorious reputation for dragging their feet” and that it “can easily reverse course again and issue yet another policy banning voting assistance for veterans living in VA facilities.”
Advocates who support the Veteran Voting Support Act say that the newly announced VA policy still comes up short in many ways. For starters, it only covers in-patients, not out-patients or veterans utilizing other VA services. It also only requires that voting registration information be posted on the wall (cluttered with god knows how many other fliers, forms, and bulletins) rather than VA personnel directly asking veterans if they want to register, as is the case when one signs up to enlist. This affirmative voter registration assistance is especially important for in-patients, many of whom are unaware that their previous voting registration is invalid when they move into a VA facility. The VA says 100,000 veterans are currently living in its facilities – most of those are elderly or somehow disabled. Finally, the ability of third parties to assist in voter registration is left to the discretion of local VA officials, with no timeline or explicit criteria, and many states have registration deadlines in less than three weeks.
In contrast, under S. 3308, once a state requests that the VA offer voter registration at its facilities the VA would be obligated to provide voter registration forms, assist with their completion, and submit the forms to the appropriate election officials. (Danetz testified that California, Connecticut, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Vermont have already made such requests – the VA turned down California and the other decisions are pending.) Non-partisan groups and election officials would be allowed to provide voter registration information to veterans as well. There would be an annual report to Congress from the Department of Veterans Affairs on progress related to this legislation.
Danetz testified, “Nonpartisan organizations have proved instrumental in increasing the numbers of Americans registered to vote, in particular through conducting voter registration outreach across the country. Significantly, elderly and disabled Americans – including veterans – may stand to benefit most from these… efforts because this group generally has the hardest time with mobility.”
Among other objections to the bill, Hutter said the VA was concerned about maintaining control over its facilities, interference with veterans’ care, and the VA being forced to serve as a “registration location for the entire eligible voting population” in any given state.
Senator Feinstein asked that the three witnesses meet with her to tweak the language of the legislation so that the concerns of the VA are allayed and uniformity at VA facilities is achieved. Addressing Hutter, she asked, “Would you be willing to sit down and work out this language which would allow some contact [with] veterans… to be able to register to vote? I mean, to me it’s such a no-brainer, I don’t understand….”
“Senator, we’re doing that,” Hutter replied. “And – “
“Then you won’t mind if we codify it,” the Senator said.
“No, I do not,” Hutter said. He later added, “We want to make sure that you and your colleagues understand that we are not trying to limit access for veterans to vote.”
“Mr. Hutter, the heat is on,” Senator Feinstein replied. “There is substantial interest in this bill. Every veterans organization in America is supportive of it, virtually. I don’t believe the Veterans Administration would have moved one iota had it not been for the publicity and support that this bill has had out there. As Mr. Sullivan said, you all have changed policy five times… What I am trying to establish – what Senator Kerry is trying to establish – is every veteran should have an opportunity to register to vote. And we should make that available.”
After the hearing Danetz told me she was pleased. “From the tenor of the hearing, I am optimistic. You can never tell, of course, but the momentum seems to be going in our favor.”
As of today, Senator Feinstein has indeed met with the witnesses in an attempt to come to a final agreement on the language of this bill. Negotiations are ongoing – but with the clock ticking on voter registration deadlines, they need to draw to a close fast.
This legislation isn’t perfect. It still would require states to request that the VA offer voter registration services at its facilities rather than simply mandating it. In that sense, it’s a continuation of our voting system which Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. described in The Nation as: “… built on the sand of states’ rights and local control. We have fifty states, 3,141 counties and 7,800 different local election jurisdictions. All separate and unequal.”
Veterans shouldn’t have to rely on states opting-in in order to receive voter registration opportunities at facilities where they reside, heal, or obtain services. As Danetz said at the hearing, providing the opportunity to vote is consistent with the VA mission “to care for him who shall have borne the battle… by providing veterans the world-class benefits and services they have earned.”
This article was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.