Make it easier, not harder, for vets to vote

With a July 19 voter registration deadline looming for our state’s Aug. 19 primary, it’s hard to figure what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was thinking when it banned voter registration drives in its hospitals.

Veterans in VA hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and shelters can vote, but are left in a lurch when it comes to getting help registering. The VA approved such drives on April 25, but retracted the decision 10 days later, claiming fears of distractions and partisan badgering for patients and staff.

When it comes to enfranchising those who have served, the VA stepped forward but then leaped backward — clear off the boat. The reversal is puzzling and unnecessary.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, veterans register and vote more frequently than non-veterans. Veterans are a vital bloc, especially during an election year when foreign wars and the treatment of veterans are key issues.

The VA has every right to guard against patient disruptions and it’s right to want a uniform, nonpartisan approach to helping patients vote. Its requirement of posting voting information at nursing stations is a good start, as is its assistance for veterans who must use absentee ballots. Locking its doors to outside help — not so much.

Under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, the VA can decide against becoming a voter registration agency. But its claim that a 1939 law which bans federal employees from partisan activities also prohibits voter registration drives is dubious. The VA also argues that it’d be too much trouble to police registration drives for partisan activity. Excuses aside, the VA can’t depend on hospital employees to be the only voting resource for in-house veteran voters.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed has taken a strong stand against the ban, sending letters to lawmakers and applauding local VA agencies that answer veterans’ requests for voting assistance.

The elections process is littered with potholes full of deterred or confused voters, and this ban can only add to the bewilderment. Because, as U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote to VA officials, “Those who fight for democracy overseas shouldn’t have to fight for democracy here at home.” The VA should allow nonpartisan voter registration drives and give veterans in federally-funded facilities easy access to voting help. The registration deadlines won’t wait.

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