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News Published: Jul 23, 2008 - 3:52:59 PM

Bysiewicz endorses federal legislation allowing non partisan voter registration at veterans health care facilities

By Secretary of the State's Office

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Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz today endorsed federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) that would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide voter registration services to veterans in the department’s care and allow non partisan groups and election officials to conduct voter registration drives at V.A. hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters nationwide.

“So far, our call on the V.A. to allow our veterans to participate in Democracy has fallen on deaf ears,” said Bysiewicz, “I applaud the efforts of Senators Feinstein, Kerry, Obama, Clinton and all the co-sponsors of this bill and wholeheartedly endorse their very simple yet thoughtful legislation. All it says is: Let our veterans vote!”

Bysiewicz continued, “The clock is ticking. We now have just over 100 days until the most important national election in a generation. Our military veterans who sacrificed so much to preserve our right to vote deserve access to information about voting and they should be allowed to register to vote in the V.A. facilities. To deny these fundamental rights through bureaucratic restrictions is undemocratic and un-American, and a slap in the face to our brave veterans.”

The co sponsors of Senate bill #3308 include Senators Harry Reid (D-NV), Barack Obama (D-Ill), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

“Our nation's service members and veterans have sacrificed so much for our country on the battlefield that we cannot allow them to fight another battle here at home for the benefits and rights they deserve,” said Senator Obama. “Whether Americans are abroad serving in the Armed Forces, or recovering and living in VA facilities, it is critical that we ensure these brave men and women can exercise their right to vote.”

“This is about giving those who have fought to spread democracy and freedom the right to exercise that freedom in the voting booth,” Senator Feinstein said. “I believe the cost of providing voter materials is minimal. And given the sacrifices that these men and woman have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do.”

On July 21st, Bysiewicz received a letter pledging the support from leaders of several national voter advocacy groups, including Common Cause, Demos, The League of Women Voters, and The American Association of People with Disabilities.

The non-partisan voter advocacy groups stated in the letter that, “The American people would surely expect that the federal agency established to serve the needs of our veterans would make every effort to help them exercise the most fundamental right of citizenship,” and was mailed to V. A. Secretary James Peake and election officials throughout the country.

On May 5th, The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a directive banning voter registration drives at V.A. facilities nationwide, claiming they were partisan and would be too disruptive to patient care. On June 30th, Secretary Bysiewicz and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal attempted to go to the V.A. hospital in West Haven, CT but were not allowed inside the facility. Despite the ban, Bysiewicz was able to register 12 veterans to vote at the West Haven V.A., including 92 year-old WWII veteran Martin O’Nieal.

Bysiewicz and Blumenthal then formally requested the V.A. reverse its policy and allow for voter registration and education for veterans about new optical scan machines, paper ballots, and new voting systems in place in Connecticut for the disabled.

On July 11th Secretary Bysiewicz and Washing State Secretary of State Sam Reed launched a bi-partisan effort among Secretaries of the State to over turn the original V.A. directive, which prohibits staff from participating in voter registration drives for patients and residents of hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and homeless shelters administered by the federal Veterans Administration.

In a letter to V.A. Secretary James Peake, Bysiewicz and Reed wrote, “As a practical matter, voter registration drives have historically been a critical outreach tool for veterans in facilities to ensure that they get the opportunity to register to vote. Many veterans simply are not able to get out on their own, rendering registration much more difficult. Likewise, the longstanding practice of allowing facility employees to assist veterans in registering to vote has provided valuable assistance to veterans in need.”

The call to lift the ban was signed by 20 Secretaries of State representing voters in Connecticut, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Kansas, Missouri, and the District of Columbia.

In a letter dated July 15, 2008 Secretary Peake of the Veterans Association stated the only people who can register patients to vote are officially certified volunteers. However, the fine print of the volunteer forms states that volunteers can only register veterans at federal run facilities who specifically request the help. Furthermore, the volunteer form states that the volunteers may not encourage the V.A. patients to participate in the political process through activities such as voting.

In a follow up letter, Connecticut V.A. Administrator Roger Johnson wrote that voter education about the new paper ballots and optical scan machines would not be allowed, since the V.A. assumes most of its patients will be voting by absentee ballot. This directly contradicts the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which states that voters, especially those with disabilities, have the right to vote privately and independently.

The proposed legislation not only takes up the call by elections officials from around the country to reverse the VA ban, but would also 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 of 1993. These services include providing voter registration forms, answering questions on registration issues and assisting with submitting voter registration forms.

The bill also requires the VA to assist veterans at facilities to receive and use absentee ballots if they choose to vote absentee and allow non-partisan groups and election officials to provide voter information and registration information to veterans.

“It shouldn’t have taken a legislative solution to fix a bureaucratic problem, but that’s what it’s come down to in the name of common sense and patriotism,” Senator Kerry said. Making it easier not harder for veterans to vote is the least we can do in our democracy for those who fought for democracy around the globe. The cost of getting these voter materials to veterans is tiny, but its meaning is bigger than any of us.”

Secretary Bysiewicz and Attorney General Blumenthal have given the V.A. until August 1st to allow voter education and registration at its hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters and have pledged to use all available means, including legal action if necessary, to secure our military veterans’ rights to vote.

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