WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Senator John Kerry (D-MA), sent a letter today to Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake, calling on him to end the current prohibition of voter registration at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.
Under current regulations, which Secretary Peake has the authority to revise, Veterans Affairs broadly prohibits third-party organizations from conducting voter registration drives at VA facilities. Recently, VA has received criticism for this prohibition, and been urged to allow non-partisan voter registration activities.
"Veterans receiving care at VA facilities risked life and limb to defend the freedoms we enjoy, including the right to vote," said Akaka. "Current VA policy makes it unnecessarily difficult for some veterans to participate in the electoral process. I urge Secretary Peake to reverse the prohibition on non-partisan voter registration activities."
"There is no reason why the Department of Veterans Affairs should not proactively assist veterans in exercising their right to vote. To do otherwise is an insult to the sacrifices these men and women have made for our country," said Feinstein. "It's time the Department of Veterans Affairs reverse its directive and allow these non-partisan, third-party organizations into VA facilities to register veterans to vote."
"No veteran who has defended freedom and democracy overseas should experience democracy denied here at home. We must support voter registration for veterans in every way possible, including allowing assistance from nonpartisan registration organizations. Impeding voter registration in any way insults the ideals our veterans fought for in uniform, and that's something the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot stand for," said Kerry.
The joint letter is copied below.
The Honorable James B. Peake, MD
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Peake,
We are writing to urge you to revise the current directive - VHA Directive 2008-025 - relating to voting assistance for Department of Veterans Affairs' patients. We believe that the Directive's broad prohibition against third-party organizations conducting voter registration drives at VA facilities is both unnecessary and arbitrary and fails to recognize that veterans may need assistance in registering in order to exercise their Constitutional right to vote. We believe that VA should be a proactive facilitator of voter registration by nonpartisan groups, rather than an agency that hinders veterans from participating in the electoral process.
The VHA Directive references "Hatch Act requirements" as one basis for the prohibition on voter registration activities. We do not understand this reference. The Hatch Act, among other things, prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity on official time or on federal property. This has been interpreted to mean that federal employees are forbidden from participating in a partisan voter registration drive on official time or on federal property. However, the Office of Special Counsel has issued policy statements that federal employees may assist in non-partisan voter registration drives on federal property and on official time without violating the Hatch Act. In addition, the Hatch Act does not prohibit outside groups, partisan or otherwise, from registering voters at a VA facility if federal employees do not participate.
Right before the Fourth of July, Connecticut's Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz attempted to provide voter information and register residents at a West Haven Veterans Affairs facility. Secretary Bysiewicz was denied entry to the VA facility under the VA's Directive. Instead she sought to register veterans leaving the facility. One such veteran who was registered to vote by the Secretary was Martin Onieal, 92, a World War II veteran. Mr. Onieal told her "There was nobody here to do this last year." That is simply unacceptable.
We recognize and respect the need for VA to guard against any activities that might interfere with carrying out the Department's mission to furnish quality health care services to veterans. However, we are confident that voter registration activity can be permitted that would not impinge on fulfilling that responsibility.
We strongly urge you to revise VHA Directive 2008-025, so as to allow voter registration activity at VA facilities, with appropriate limitations as to time and place for such activities.
Thank you for your consideration of this important request. We look forward to working with you on this and others matters of concern to our Nation's veterans.
Daniel K. Akaka