You'd think it would be a matter of common sense that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is supposed to "help veterans get the services they have earned," would do everything it could to help veterans vote. Especially since the VA's Patients' Rights rule specifically protects the right of every veteran in the VA's care to register and vote.
But the VA apparently doesn't agree: on May 5th, the VA issued a directive that banned voter registration drives from all VA facilities. The VA's explanation was that federal law prohibits partisan political activities by federal employees, but the ban goes far beyond anything that federal law requires. The ban prevents state and local election officials from conducting registration drives in VA facilities, and it also stops non-partisan, non-profit groups like the League of Women Voters from helping vets sign up to vote.
In the aftermath of the VA's decision, a range of voices condemned the VA's creation of an unnecessary hurdle that veterans will have to overcome before they can vote. California's Secretary of State, Sec. Bowen, asked the VA to designate its facilities as voter registration agencies, but the VA refused, saying that permitting vets to register would interfere with the VA's ability to provide them with medical care. Later, after being barred from accessing a VA facility, Connecticut's Secretary of State, Sec. Bysiewicz, resorted to registering voters on the outside steps of the building.
Fortunately, lawmakers in Congress have come forward with a legislative solution to this bureaucratic problem: the Veteran Voting Support Act. Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry took the lead by introducing the bill last week, and on July 29th, Representative Robert Brady introduced parallel legislation in the House.
The legislation would enact reforms that should have widespread, bi-partisan support. It would open the VA to registration drives and require the VA to make voter registration services available at VA facilities in states that request it. It would require the VA to help veterans request and cast absentee ballots. And it would open VA facilities to non-partisan groups and election officials, so that they could provide veterans with information on registration and voting. All these services will go a long way to ensuring that veterans are able to exercise their most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote.
As the Brennan Center and others have argued, Congress should take immediate action to pass this legislation so that the President can sign it in time for the Fall elections. The nation owes a great debt of gratitude to those who have fought for our democracy and risked their lives around the globe. For them, voting must be made easier, not harder. Our veterans have done their duty and served the country with valor, and now it is time for the country to fulfill its duty to them and honor their service. By making sure they have ready access to the registration rolls and the ballot, this legislation will make sure that their voices are heard.
In the words of the VA, "Our nation's veterans deserve no less."
At about midnight on July 31, the House passed an amendment to the VA appropriations bill that will prevent the VA from spending taxpayer dollars to enforce its directive and obstruct voter registration at VA facilities. The amendment, offered by Rep. Murphy of Connecticut and Rep. Murphy of Pennsylvania, was included in the final version of the appropriations bill, which passed the House, 409-4, on August 1st.