Florida's top elections official and several U.S. senators have joined the mounting criticism over a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy that bans voter registration on VA property.
Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said he disagrees with the VA ban and finds it "somewhat troubling.''
"I think these men and women confined to VA facilities should have the opportunity to register and participate in the voting process,'' Browning said. "They fought in the foxholes for our country and should have the franchise" to vote.
Several Senate leaders joined the chorus Thursday.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, joined Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in a letter to VA Secretary James Peake urging an end to the ban.
"We believe the VA should be a proactive facilitator of voter registration by nonpartisan groups rather than an agency that hinders veterans from participating in the electoral process," the Democrats wrote.
Their efforts came as top elections officials in Connecticut and Washington state — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — criticized the VA for banning registration drives. California has already asked the VA to allow them.
VA officials in Washington declined to comment, referring to previous statements about the need to focus on patient care.
Elections officials say it is impossible to know how many veterans are potentially affected, but about a half-million of the 1.8-million veterans in Florida use VA services.
Florida trails only California in its veteran population, and the Tampa Bay area boasts two of the busiest VA hospitals in the nation, including the busiest, James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
The criticism is coming from both sides of the political spectrum.
While opposing the policy, Browning, a Republican, said he lacks the legal standing to challenge the VA. He said his office has received no complaints from veterans or a group seeking to register them.
The VA has said it must control access to its facilities and prevent disruptions to patient care. In addition, the agency says it can't afford to focus on determining the political agenda of every group that wants to register patients.
The VA also says its hands are tied by the Hatch Act, which bans partisan political activity by federal employees. The VA, denying political motivation, says its official volunteers will register patients asking for help.
"My information is that there has not been a great hue and cry from patients that they're being denied assistance," Tom Bowman, VA chief of staff, said in May.
Akaka, Kerry and Feinstein said the VA is misreading the Hatch Act.
While no Tampa Bay area groups have complained about the ban, a registration drive at a VA clinic in Okaloosa County on Florida's Panhandle was quashed last month for fear the VA would bar it.
Pat Hollarn, a Republican who has been Okaloosa's supervisor of elections for 20 years, said her office and a group that included the League of Women Voters wanted to avoid an ugly standoff with the VA.
"I didn't think it was worth the grandstanding or the fight," Hollarn said Thursday. "If anybody deserves the right to vote for president, it's these kids coming back from war."
And in a state where the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes, every ballot counts, she said.
Hollarn, however, sees no political motivation by the VA. She said it is a case of an unwieldy bureaucracy being overly cautious in interpreting the Hatch Act. "The VA sees registering voters as political when it isn't."
Washington lawyer Scott Rafferty is suing the VA in federal court over the ban. The VA won the case after a judge ruled Rafferty hadn't proved a veteran was prohibited from voting. That decision is under appeal.
Rafferty said that while the VA calls voter registration a prohibited partisan activity, many of its facilities display prowar propaganda. "How can they pretend they're politically neutral?"