The thing with the flag? That was sorta funny. It was meant as humor.
This isn’t funny: The Bush administration is actively working to stop injured and ill veterans in Veterans Administration facilities from registering to vote.
These actions are most likely violations of the Voting Rights Act (under Section 2, or Section 11 – not my area of expertise, alas), but don’t expect Bush’s Justice Department to prosecute. These actions violate the VA’s own rules on helping veterans to vote. More pragmatically, there isn’t time for a big fight before the election. Veterans will be stopped from voting unless there is action now.
There is an easier, simpler solution — though we’re late. Bush should just rescind the order, encourage all veterans to vote, and help voter registration drives and attempts to get absentee ballots injured and ill veterans in VA facilities.
WHAT is the secretary of Veterans Affairs thinking? On May 5, the department led by James B. Peake issued a directive that bans nonpartisan voter registration drives at federally financed nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and shelters for homeless veterans. As a result, too many of our most patriotic American citizens — our injured and ill military veterans — may not be able to vote this November.
I have witnessed the enforcement of this policy. On June 30, I visited the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Haven, Conn., to distribute information on the state’s new voting machines and to register veterans to vote. I was not allowed inside the hospital.
Outside on the sidewalk, I met Martin O’Nieal, a 92-year-old man who lost a leg while fighting the Nazis in the mountains of Northern Italy during the harsh winter of 1944. Mr. O’Nieal has been a resident of the hospital since 2007. He wanted to vote last year, but he told me that there was no information about how to register to vote at the hospital and the nurses could not answer his questions about how or where to cast a ballot.
Just a minor glitch, an information vacuum waiting to be filled? Go back and reread the last sentence in her second paragraph: “I was not allowed inside the hospital,” to register veterans to vote, she said.
Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, and I wrote to [Veterans Affairs] Secretary [James B.] Peake in July to request that elections officials be let inside the department’s facilities to conduct voter education and registration. Our request was denied.
The department offers two reasons to justify its decision. First, it claims that voter registration drives are disruptive to the care of its patients. This is nonsense. Veterans can fill out a voter registration card in about 90 seconds.
Second, the department claims that its employees cannot help patients register to vote because the Hatch Act forbids federal workers from engaging in partisan political activities. But this interpretation of the Hatch Act is erroneous. Registering people to vote is not partisan activity.
If the department does not want to burden its staff, there are several national organizations with a long history of nonpartisan advocacy for veterans and their right to vote that are eager to help, as are elected officials like me.
The department has placed an illegitimate obstacle in the way of election officials across the country and, more important, in the way of veterans who want to vote.
And then take action. Bills have already been filed in Congress to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow veterans in its hospitals to register and vote. Frankly, time is running out. Many of these veterans will have to vote absentee — they need to be registered and have about a month to get the ballots and mail them back. There are 82 days to the election. Time is short.
So: Call George Bush and tell him to let veterans in hospitals register, and vote. George’s phone number for comments is 202-456-1111; if for any reason that does not work for you, try the general switchboard at 202-456-1414. Tell Bush I said to say “Howdy.”
The White House won’t put you through to George, but they will tally your opinion. If they give you a hard time, ask them: Why is George Bush afraid of the votes of wounded and ill veterans?
Ready to do more to support our veterans? Call the Secretary of Veterans Affairs: [::grumble:: Just try to find a general phone number for VA. Still looking. It appears the Secretary of Veterans Affairs doesn’t give a damn about veterans — they can’t call him, you can’t call him either. Still looking.]
Or you may write Sec. Peake at his office:
The Honorable James B. Peake
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420
I do not recommend on-line messages, since they clog a bureaucracy that should be helping veterans, but VA does not make it easy to contact them. If you wish to write an electronic message to the VA, try here.
“The federal government should be doing everything it can to support our nation’s veterans who have served us so courageously. There can be no justification for any barrier that impedes the ability of veterans to participate in democracy’s most fundamental act, the vote,” Sec. of State Byseiwicz said.
This is no small group. Veterans in hospitals are numerous enough to swing elections in many districts, and nationally. They fought for our nation, and they deserve to have their voices heard, and their votes registered.
In her request, [California Secretary of State Debra] Bowen cited a 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton requiring federal agencies to undertake the responsibility of registration when asked to do so by state election officials. A spokeswoman for Ms. Bowen said she was considering litigation.
More than 100,000 people reside for a month or longer at the V.A. campuses nationally, a number that has grown in recent years as more soldiers return wounded from the war.
In California, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs runs eight major medical centers and 11 nursing homes that provide care for more than 200,000 veterans.
What would George Washington do?
- New York Times, June 13, 2008, “V.A. Ban on Voter Drives is Criticized”
- The V.A.’s current regulations (nota bene: V.A.’s actions appear to violate its own order)
- U.S. Sen John Kerry, D-Mass., and U.S. Sen. Dianne Fienstein, D-Calif., wrote to VA Sec. James B. Peake asking for a reversal of the illegal, voting-frustration policy
- Project Vote Summary of the Voting Rights Act
- Voting Rights in the U.S. Code
- Sotsyndicate blog notice
- VA creates roadblocks to vets’ voting – Alternet.org
- Crooks and Liars, “Bush doesn’t want vets voting — I wonder why”