Voter Registration Barriers Challenged in New Mexico, at Veterans Affairs

by Amanda Adams*, 8/5/2008

Throughout the country, new rules on nonpartisan voter registration efforts are making nonprofit voter mobilization drives more difficult — and groups are fighting these rules. After the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) May 5 directive banning voter registration drives at veterans' facilities, a multi-front advocacy effort developed to get the VA to change its policy. Voting rights advocates also have been fighting state restrictions, including a New Mexico voter registration law. The VA continues to assert that voter registration activities on its properties would be too partisan and interfere with their medical mission. Several secretaries of state have been pressuring the VA to allow voter registration drives at its facilities. Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal were prevented from entering a West Haven facility to help register voters and distribute information on the state's new voting machines. Bysiewicz was able to register 12 veterans outside the facility. According to the New Haven Register, they registered a 92-year-old vet. "There was nobody here to do this last year," said Martin Onieal, a resident of the VA center since 2007.

Afterwards, Bysiewicz requested that elections officials have access to the facilities to distribute voter registration materials and to instruct residents on the use of new voting machines. The request was rejected. According to an AlterNet article, VA Secretary James B. Peake said his agency would not allow registration drives unless "these efforts be coordinated through the VA Voluntary Service (VAVS) office at each VA medical center." The July 15 letter said, "This policy is the result of careful deliberation and consideration for the needs and rights of our patients, concerns about disrupting facility operations, and the need to ensure VA is not involved in partisan political activities."

On July 11, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed and Bysiewicz announced a national bipartisan effort among secretaries of state to get the VA directive overturned. In a letter to Peake, the state officials assert that "voter registration drives have historically been a critical outreach tool for veterans in facilities to ensure that they get the opportunity to register to vote. Many veterans simply are not able to get out on their own, rendering registration much more difficult."

A July 18 press release from Bysiewicz's office stated, "Our next step is a final demand to the VA, which we are sending by letter today: allow legally required non-partisan voter registration drives, including both in-patients and outpatients, staff and visitors; permit voter education and demonstration of the new machines; lift unreasonable and restrictive restraints on access. If these demands are unmet by August 1, we will take appropriate action to fight for these veterans rights — just as they fought for ours — including potential action in court."

By July 18, 20 secretaries of state had signed on to the effort, representing Ohio, Minnesota, Vermont, Montana, Connecticut, Idaho, Rhode Island, North Carolina, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Maine, Kansas, Kentucky, Oregon, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, Washington State, and the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, four voting rights organizations called for the VA to change its policy. On July 21, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), Common Cause, Demos, and the League of Women Voters wrote to Peake urging the approval of future state requests to allow voter registration on VA property. The groups also sent letters to secretaries of states nationwide in conjunction with their state-based chapters, asking that they request the VA to designate its offices in their states as voter registration agencies.

Legislatively, the Veteran Voting Support Act has been introduced in the House (H.R. 6625) and in the Senate (S. 3308). On July 30, the House Administration Committee approved the bill by voice vote, and it has now been referred to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

According to Senate sponsor Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the measure would allow nonpartisan groups and election officials to provide voter information and registration information to veterans and require an annual report to Congress. In addition, the VA would have to assist veterans who choose to receive and use absentee ballots.

Shortly before the House adjourned for the August recess, Reps. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Patrick Murphy (D-PA) offered an amendment to the VA appropriations bill to prevent the VA from spending taxpayer dollars to enforce its directive and obstruct voter registration at VA facilities. The amendment passed and was included in the final version of the appropriations bill. However, it is uncertain if this appropriations bill will pass in 2008, let alone the rider restricting the VA policy.

On July 27, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) passed a resolution urging Congress to designate the VA as a registration agency under the National Voter Registration Act and to ensure that election officials have access to facilities to provide assistance.

The VA is not the only entity with a restrictive policy for voter registration activities. The Brennan Center for Justice, along with pro bono law firms, filed a lawsuit in Albuquerque challenging a New Mexico law that makes it difficult for groups to conduct voter registration drives. The law is similar to a Florida law that is also being challenged.

Voting rights advocates want a judge to overturn New Mexico's law. It requires that before registering voters, every volunteer or employee has to first pre-register and submit an affidavit to the state and, in some counties, go through an in-person, hour-long training session. The training is conducted only during business hours and only a few times each month. The law also limits organizations to 50 registration forms at a time. Completed registration forms must be returned to county or state officials within 48 hours, and any "intentional" violation of these rules may be punishable with a jail sentence. Most alarming, no extenuating circumstance, such as a flood or an earthquake, will excuse a failure to submit a completed form within the allotted time period, bringing along civil penalties of up to $5,000.

The lawsuit was filed in state district court on behalf of four organizations, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas Inc. (FAWCO), New Mexico Public Interest Research Group (NMPIRG), and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), which all typically register low-income, minority, disabled, and young citizens. The complaint requests that the 2005 law be declared unconstitutional and that the New Mexico Secretary of State be barred from enforcing it. The plaintiffs charge that the law restricts their ability to register new voters and threatens to block thousands of eligible New Mexico citizens from registering and voting. The lawsuit states, "These unduly onerous laws, regulations, and policies have chilled and continue to chill core political speech and association, and have forced Plaintiffs to seriously curtail or halt their voter-registration activities."

"The law aggressively discourages civic organizations from helping New Mexico citizens to exercise their basic right to vote, and threatens voter registration drives across the state," Robby Rodriguez of SWOP stated.

Nonpartisan voter registration drives are one of the most important tools to get more citizens involved in the electoral process. Registering to vote should be made easier, not harder, and the role of nonprofit nonpartisan voter registration activities must be protected, not distrusted.