The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last week said it would refuse to abide by a 14-year-old presidential directive requiring it to help register veterans to vote.
It says doing so would detract from providing medical care and benefits to veterans.
On May 1, California officials asked the VA to help register veterans, citing a 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton requiring federal agencies to undertake the responsibility if a state's top elections official makes the request.
The VA's May 19 refusal, which received little media attention, has repercussions beyond California. It provides the latest sign that the VA is vigorously resisting organized voter registration drives on its property as a presidential election nears.
Earlier this month, the agency banned any group or individual from registering voters in any of its facilities. Critics say politics are behind the decision and accused the VA of trying to prevent low-income veterans from voting.
But VA chief of staff Tom Bowman said that veterans already receive help, when requested, for registration and that no one is complaining.
"My information is that there has not been a great hue and cry from patients that they're being denied assistance," Bowman said. "To say this is politically motivated is simply inaccurate and untrue."
VA Secretary James Peake, an appointee of President Bush, told California that Clinton's order could not force a federal agency to comply if doing so isn't "practicable."
Attorney Scott Rafferty, who is suing the VA over voter registration restrictions, said the agency is deliberately misinterpreting Clinton's executive order.
"The rule allows no discretion. It says 'shall,' " said Rafferty. "They say they can't afford it, but they've identified no cost. I'm just kind of baffled."
Under the order, the VA would have to provide voter registration materials to veterans living at its facilities, help them fill out forms and then send the completed forms to the state.
So far, California is the only state to have made the request.
Voter registration "activities, while extremely important, would require substantial use of VA personnel," Peake said in a May 19th letter to California's secretary of state, Debra Bowen.
"Using VA resources in this manner would diminish the agency's ability to fulfill its mission of providing medical care and benefits to veterans," Peake wrote.
The dispute has thus far barely raised a ripple in political circles or in the mainstream media nationally or in Florida, where the 2000 presidential election was decided by a mere 537 votes.
Barack Obama is one of just a few national political figures to reference the issue.
In a recent speech in Pennsylvania, Obama said, "There is nothing patriotic about denying wounded troops the ability to vote. ... It's time to reverse this shameful decision."
John McCain's campaign did not respond to a request for the candidate's position on the issue.
"At a time when the nation is at war and seriously injured servicemen and women are returning home daily, anything which detracts from this health care mission would be inappropriate," Peake told California officials.
A spokeswoman for Bowen's office said California is considering its legal options but declined to elaborate.
The VA has previously allowed nonpartisan groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to register voters on its property. But that changed without explanation earlier this month, when all groups were banned.
The VA now says only its official volunteers can assist veterans who seek help to register. Critics say they fear the VA will not make registering veterans a priority or will only register those known to be Republicans.
Rafferty challenged the VA's registration policy in federal court. A judge dismissed the complaint because he said it failed to prove anyone had been prevented from voting. That decision is being appealed.