Last month I wroteabout important legislation designed to help veterans vote in theupcoming election, the Veteran Voting Support Act (S. 3308). Introducedby Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry–and cosponsored by fourteensenators including Barack Obama (not John McCain)–the bill is fair andjust. It would require the US Department of Veterans Affairs to allownonpartisan voter registration drives and comply with any state’srequest that the VA offer voter registration at its facilities.
The urgency of this legislation is clear: 5.3 million veterans (23.2 percent ofall veterans) were unregistered in 2006, and 50 percent of veterans ages 18-24are not registered to vote either. Paul Sullivan, Executive Director ofVeterans for Common Sense, pointed out that the VA changed its voterregistration policy three times in five months and its hardly reliablein terms of helping veterans vote. Currently, the VA is only requiredto post voting registration information on the wall at in-patientfacilities. There is no policy of directly asking veterans if they wantto register as occurs when an individual signs up to enlist. This lackof affirmative registration assistance is especially troubling sincemany veterans are unaware that their previous voting registration isinvalid when they move into a VA facility. Finally, there are no voterregistration requirements whatsoever for out-patients or veteransutilizing other VA services.
With time running out before many state voter registration deadlines andcongressional recess, Senator Feinstein, who Chairs the Senate Committeeon Rules and Administration, needed the support of the Veterans AffairsCommittee and the VA in order to pass the bill quickly under unanimousconsent. (The House had already approved its version.) At a Senatehearing, the VA expressed a willingness to work with the Senators andvoting rights advocates to reach a consensus on the bill. But when itcame time to step-up to the plate the VA failed to do so and failed theveterans they serve.
Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel for Demos–a public policy and voting rights center–testified at the hearing and was involved in the subsequent negotiations on the bill. She said, “The Department of Veterans Affairs did not embrace any of the various congressional initiatives to create opportunities for veterans to get registered and cast a ballot in the upcoming election. Moreover, the VA stonewalled the many attempts by state elections officials to ensure veteran voter registration…and flip-flopped on its policy severaltimes. In the end, the VA successfully dragged out negotiations oncongressional proposals and ran out the clock by seeming to engage in adialogue regarding the terms of any legislation. The end result isfewer veterans registered to vote in the November election. I do notunderstand how this outcome helps the veterans that the VA serves.”
Howard Gantman, Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Rules andAdministration, agreed. “The Department of Veterans Affairs wasinconsistent in their willingness to negotiate,” he said. Gantman alsopointed to a lack of support from “representatives from the Veterans’Affairs Committee.” He said that “these [two] factors prevented thelegislation from coming to the floor and being approved by the fullSenate.” (When asked about the bill, sources on the Veterans AffairsCommittee said a unanimous consent request to approve the legislationwas never received and the Committee wasn’t involved in working on thebill. A spokesman for the Majority staff said, “[Chairman] Akaka willbe monitoring the VA’s implementation of their new policy, whichrepealed the ban on voter registration” by election officials andnon-partisan groups in early September.)
Senator Feinstein remains committed to this legislative effort as dovoting rights advocates like Demos. But veterans who have put theirlife on the line for this nation will have to wait until at least thenext election before they see any legislative assurances that protectingtheir right to vote is a priority.
This blog post was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writerresiding in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.