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Press release/statement

STATEMENT: VA's Voter Registration Policy Could Block Thousands of Veterans from Voting in 2008

Advocates Call for Passage of Feinstein and Kerry's "Veterans Voting Support Act"

New York — In response to the Department of Veterans Affairs' decision to modify its policy barring voter registration activity in VA facilities, today the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Demos and the League of Women Voters submitted a letter to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein calling the VA's directive an important but still inadequate step towards protecting the voting rights of veterans.

The two-page letter declares that the VA's policy will still greatly hinder veterans attempting to register and vote in the 2008 election and that swift passage of the Veterans Voting Support Act (S. 3308) is necessary ensure that the nation's 25 million veterans are able to vote this November.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs" latest directive, which modifies its misguided policy barring voter registration activities in VA facilities, still does not solve the fundamental problem," said Wendy Weiser, Director of Voting Rights and Elections at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"Only the prompt passage of the Veterans Voting Support Act will make sure that the millions of men and women served by the VA have a fair opportunity to register and vote this fall," stated Mary G. Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters.

The letter lists four reasons why the VA's recent directive will not be sufficient to protect the voting rights of veterans served by the VA:

First, the directive imposes no affirmative obligation on VA facilities and agencies to register veterans. The directive requires only that each VA facility must adopt a written published policy on voter assistance' and that information on registering and voting must be posted throughout VA facilities; it does not obligate VA facilities to actively register voters.  S. 3308 would remedy this deficiency by authorizing VA facilities to be designated as voter registration agencies under the National Voter Registration Act, or 'motor voter' law.

 Second, the VA's directive makes voter registration services available only to patients residing in VA facilities, and not to veterans availing themselves of VA services on an out-patient basis or otherwise obtaining services from the VA.  All veterans served by VA facilities should be permitted to avail themselves of voter registration services on the same basis as in-patients.

 Third, under the VA's directive it is unclear whether and to what extent outside groups--which are responsible for millions of voter registrations every election--will actually be permitted to conduct voter registration activities.  The directive provides that "[a]ny request by an outside organization to facilitate voter registration on VA property is [to be] forwarded to local Regional Counsel for review." And, although the directive calls on facility directors to establish "[c]riteria for evaluating the time, place, and manner of voter registration and voter assistance activities," the absence of any substantive guidelines creates a risk that voter registration by state and local election officials and non-partisan voter registration groups may be severely undermined by the requirement that registration efforts must be "coordinated with the facility."

Finally, the VA's directive will not guarantee prompt services so veterans are able to register and vote this November.  The directive imposes no proactive duties on the VA; it only suggests the VA will not unduly interfere with others' efforts to register veterans.  And because the directive evidently vests each facility director with discretion (a) to determine whether groups attempting to register veterans are appropriately "non-partisan"; and (b) to dictate the time, place and manner of voter registration activities, the directive does not go sufficiently far to ensure that veterans will receive any meaningful assistance in this election cycle.

In addition to passing S. 3308, the authors of the letter emphasized the need for immediate hearings so that VA officials might respond to the concerns above.  "We look forward to the Senate conducting immediate hearings on the VA's new policy, so that representatives of the VA may give on-the-record testimony regarding the concerns we have raised," said Lisa Danetz, Senior Counsel at Demos.

"We thank Senators Feinstein and Kerry for their great leadership and commitment to protecting veterans' voting rights, and we credit them in significant part for the VA's retraction of a policy that makes it unnecessarily difficult for veterans to vote.  However, the VA's modified policy will not provide adequate voter registration services at VA facilities that thousands of men and women rely on," according to Jim Dickson, public affairs director for the American Association of Persons with Disabilities.