In March, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the Veteran Voting Support Act (S. 2145). Sadly, this is the third time the legislation has been presented. Back in 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued a directive banning voter registration drives from all VA facilities. Senator Feinstein responded by introducing legislation to open VA facilities to voter registration activities and to mandate greater assistance for veteran voters. It passed the House but died in the Senate. The VA responded by issuing a directive to improve voter assistance for veterans at VA facilities, but that directive, which never actually mandated the registration of veterans or the opening of VA facilities to third-party registration drives, expired in September 2013. A version of the Veteran Voting Support Act was introduced in 2011 and also died in committee. Now it is before Congress once again.
If enacted, the Veteran Voting Support Act will require the VA to provide voter registration forms to veterans upon enrollment in the VA health care system. Veterans constitute an estimated 12 percent of the adult homeless population and, according to the Census Population Survey, 9 percent of Gulf War era II veterans are unemployed, which is somewhat higher than the civilian average. Particularly for homeless and socially isolated veterans, enrollment and visits to the VA may be among their only interactions with a government agency. That is why it is so crucial to harness this transaction and educate veterans on the increasingly complicated process of voting. Under the National Voter Registration Act, DMV offices and public assistance agencies are already required to offer beneficiaries an opportunity to register to vote. As a society, we should insist on the same level of assistance at VA facilities.
Second, the bill will ensure that veterans residing in VA facilities have ready access to absentee ballots. This is particularly significant, given that many veterans living with physical disabilities have mobility issues. In August 2013, about 3.2 million veterans, or 15 percent of the total 21.4 million veterans, had a service-connected disability. Still other veterans do not have the resources to make the trip to vote in person. Mail-in absentee voting is the norm for deployed military voters, and the same option should be afforded to veterans who are putting their lives back together here at home. Additionally, many states such as Texas and Tennessee are starting to require photo IDs for in-person voting, and transportation, disability, and financial issues all present obstacles to obtaining a valid photo ID for voting. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin's strict voter ID laws have been enjoined pending ongoing litigation, but both of those laws continue to exclude Veterans Identification Cards (VICs) issued by the VA from the list of accepted photo IDs.
Third, this law would allow nonpartisan voter registration groups such as the League of Women Voters as well as election officials, to provide voter information and registration services to veterans in a structured setting, and at a time and place set by the VA facility. The burden of registering veterans and educating them about their rights and options in casting a ballot need not be borne exclusively or even mostly by the government. Countless state and national nonprofits stand ready to help in this effort.
Surely the will can be found to ensure our wounded warriors have access to accurate information on voting and are given every measure of assistance to register and cast a ballot that will count. How can we say to those we send to fight to preserve our fundamental freedoms, we won't promote their right to vote. If this bill dies again, it is to our national shame.