September 08, 2008

Senators Feinstein and Kerry Welcome Changes in Voter Registration Policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs

- New VA directive reverses previous order that limited efforts to register veterans -

Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and John Kerry (D-Mass.), co-sponsors of the Veterans Voter Support Act, today called the latest directive handed down by the Veterans Health Administration an important step forward in providing voter registration access to veterans in the Department’s care.

“The VA directive seems to be a significant turnaround in granting veterans the access to voter registration that they rightfully deserve,” Senator Feinstein said. “Common sense seems to have prevailed at the VA.  This new policy appears to reject a prior ruling barring voter registration drives, even by election officials and nonpartisan groups.  Given the sacrifices that the men and women who have fought in our armed services have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do.”

“We intend to hold a hearing on this matter and will make a determination on the effectiveness of this administrative action,” Senator Feinstein added. 

“It’s encouraging to see the VA finally commit to offer veterans the open access to voter registration they deserve.  The news that the VA will work with election officials and non-partisan groups to give our nation’s veterans the resources necessary to cast their vote this fall is a step in the right direction,” Senator Kerry said. “We should be doing all we can to ensure that those who fought for democracy around the world are able to participate in that democracy here at home.  This is a basic constitutional right, and Dianne Feinstein and I are committed to seeing all veterans in this country exercise that right.  With Election Day fast approaching, it is essential that the VA implement this policy as soon as possible to give all veterans the chance to vote.” 

The new directive, the third handed down by the VA in four months, stops short of designating appropriate VA facilities as voter registration agencies.  However, the directive reverses a ban on voter registration drives at VA facilities, and allows election officials and nonpartisan groups to provide voter registration services and nonpartisan voter information – all of which Senators Feinstein and Kerry had requested. 

In July, Senators Feinstein and Kerry introduced the Veteran Voting Support Act by Senators Feinstein and Kerry. The legislation has 12 cosponsors.   

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Require the VA to make voter registration services available at VA facilities in states that request it, in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act.  These services include providing voter registration forms, answering questions on registration issues and assisting with submitting voter registration forms. 
  • Require the VA to assist veterans at facilities to receive and use absentee ballots if they choose to vote absentee.  
  • Allow non-partisan groups and election officials to provide voter information and registration information to veterans.
  • Require an annual report to Congress from the Department of Veterans Affairs on progress related to this legislation.

The bill was introduced following a 16-month disagreement with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs on their lack of a meaningful voter registration policy.  That dispute was exacerbated by a new Directive issued in May 2008, which banned voter registration drives at VA facilities.

Since that time, the VA has faced pressure from numerous groups to reverse its Directive, support the Act, and designate the Department as a “voter registration agency” under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. The Act requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at all state offices that provide public assistance, services to the disabled and at all motor vehicle offices.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, AARP, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and many other groups have indicated strong support of S. 3308.   The National Association of Secretaries of State passed a resolution asking that the VA designate appropriate facilities as “voter registration agencies” under the NVRA. 

Some veterans live at VA facilities and some, especially those who are disabled, find it difficult to travel off-campus for services including voter registration.  State social service agencies are required to provide voter services—but such protections are not found at appropriate VA facilities.  This leaves some veterans without the information they may need to register and vote. 

“Providing veterans with the opportunity to become more involved in our democracy is an appropriate role for the VA,” Senator Feinstein said. “It is my hope to the VA’s prompt implementation of this directive and its cooperation on working with us to improve and pass the Veteran Voting Support Act will do much to say to our veterans: we want your voice and your vote to be heard.”