V.A. Ban on Voter Drives Is Criticized

It seems that the VA is banning voter registration drives.

Voting rights groups are criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs for its decision to ban registration drives among the veterans living at federally run nursing homes, shelters for the homeless and rehabilitation centers across the country. The groups say such drives make it easier for veterans to register and participate in the political process, which could be particularly important this year in a presidential election in which the handling of the Iraq war and treatment of veterans will be major campaign issues.

Mary G. Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters, said: “It just seems wrong to the league that the V.A. is erecting barriers to voter registration for our nation’s veterans. They appear to be using technicalities to block many veterans from registering to vote.” Although veterans are not federal employees, department officials based their decision in part on the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity.

The department’s policy is “to assist patients who seek to exercise their right to register and vote,” according to a V.A. directive issued on May 5. “However, due to Hatch Act requirements and to avoid disruptions to facility operations, voter registration drives are not permitted.” Matt Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the department “wanted to ensure that our staff remains focused on caring for our veterans instead of having to determine the political agenda of each group that might try to enter our facilities.”

For years, the department allowed the managers of its sites to decide individually whether to permit such drives. In 2004, Steve Preminger, a Democratic county chairman, filed a lawsuit after he was refused permission to register voters at a V.A. campus in Menlo Park, Calif., about 25 miles south of San Francisco. A lower court ruled against Mr. Preminger in January, finding that he had failed to prove that any veteran was actually prevented from voting. On Thursday, a federal appellate court heard arguments in the case.

In February, a federal appellate court in Washington ruled in a related case that the department could prohibit only those political demonstrations that were disruptive and threatening decency or decorum. In May, the department took the broader step of issuing a ban on all outside groups from registration drives on its properties.