Letter to The Honorable James B. Peake, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Kerry and Feinstein Demand Answers about VA Reversal on Voter Registration Access for Veterans
New VA Directive appears to include blanket prohibition on voter registration drives
U.S. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed concern today about a new directive by the Veterans Health Administration that appears to reverse an earlier proposal to provide greater voter registration access to veterans in the department's care.
* On April 25, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a directive that required all VA facilities develop comprehensive voter registration plans to assist veterans in voting. It also required the VA to publicly post voter registration information for veteran facility inpatients and required that VA facilities provide absentee voter applications if patients cannot leave the facility.
* Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs withdrew that directive, and issued a new directive that introduces a broad prohibition against organizations conducting voter registration drives at VA facilities.
* In response, the senators wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake, saying the new policy could discourage involvement from nonpartisan groups such as veterans service organizations and the League of Women Voters in helping veterans to vote.
"We believe that the earlier directive better addressed the need for a consistent voter registration policy for our veterans," the senators wrote to Secretary Peake. "While the changes made in the new directive seem small, the impact is large. It appears to us that the Department took one step forward for our veterans and the right to vote by directing that assistance be provided with voter registration and with securing absentee ballots, but then took a large step back by prohibiting voter registration drives."
The Senators requested clarification about why the new directive was issued, who retracted the initial policy directive and whether Secretary Peake sees the change as a complete bar on external, nonpartisan voter registration drives.
The VA's April 25 directive came in the wake of a letter exchange between Senators Feinstein and Kerry and Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake over whether VA facilities should be designated as "voter registration agencies" within the definition of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The Act requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all offices that provide public assistance, services to the disabled and at all motor vehicle offices.
Many veterans live at VA facilities and some, especially those who are disabled, find it difficult to travel off-campus for services including voter registration. However, a federal appeals court recently ruled that voter registration groups do not have the right to register veterans on the grounds of VA facilities.
In light of the court decision, Senators Feinstein and Kerry wrote a letter in March to Secretary Peake to find ways to ensure that all veterans have access to voter registration materials and identify the policies they have in place to support voter registration.
Following is the text of the letter by Senators Feinstein and Kerry:
May 6, 2008
The Honorable James B. Peake, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Peake:
On April 25, 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to our request for a consistent voter registration policy by issuing Directive 2008-23. While we do not believe it went far enough, we commend the changes made by the Directive which provided that veterans would be required to receive voter information and assistance in registering and applying for an absentee ballot. We were pleased that you took action to ensure that our nation's veterans can easily register to vote and apply for an absentee ballot.
However, in the few days following the issuance of the first directive, the Department apparently withdrew it. Without explaining the rationale for this change, the Department today released a new policy, Directive 2008-25. While the new directive retains many positive provisions found in the earlier directive, it appears that a new and broad prohibition was included against third-party organizations conducting voter registration drives, even with the approval of the Department of Veterans Affairs. This would have the impact of discouraging involvement from nonpartisan groups for civic support for veterans.
We request that some clarification be provided on why the new directive was issued, who specifically retracted the initial policy directive, and whether you consider this change a complete bar on external, nonpartisan voter registration drives. The new directive references "Hatch Act requirements," but the Office of Special Counsel has made clear that federal employees, even those who are considered to be in sensitive positions, may "assist in voter registration drives." It is also clear from numerous policy statements issued by the Office of Special Counsel that federal employees can participate in nonpartisan voter registration drives on federal property and on official time. Moreover, the veterans the VA should support are not subject to any restrictions under the Hatch Actbecause they are not federal employees.
Directive 2008-25 further states that the policy changes are designed to "avoid disruptions to facility operations." We would appreciate knowing the type of disruptions the VA envisions might occur during voter registration drives by nonpartisan organizations, such as the League of Women Voters or veterans' organizations, and why any potential disruption could not be addressed by less restrictive means.
We believe that the earlier directive better addressed the need for a consistent voter registration policy for our veterans. While the changes made in the new directive seem small, the impact is large. It appears to us that the Department took one step forward for veterans and the right to vote by directing that assistance be provided with voter registration and with securing absentee ballots, but then took a large step back by prohibiting voter registration drives.
We hope to continue to work with your office to ensure that the VA has a strong and consistent policy to support voter registration for our veterans.