In early 2004, a prominent California Democrat walked onto Department of Veterans Affairs property to register veterans to vote.
The VA kicked him out, saying it barred "partisan" political activity. Months later, people working for Republicans walked onto the same campus and successfully registered 42 voters.
Mistake or proof of bias?
Today, as the presidential election looms, the VA is fighting vigorously to control access for voter registration purposes to the tens of thousands of veterans who reside at VA facilities around the nation.
Just this week, the VA imposed a policy prohibiting all voter registration drives on its property by anyone, partisan or not, a rule that critics say may violate the constitutional rights of veterans.
"This isn't prison," said Scott Rafferty, a Washington lawyer who is suing the VA in California federal court over its voter policy. "They're not in the military. These are ordinary citizens whose home happens to be on VA property."
Officials at the agency's Washington headquarters did not respond to calls seeking comment.
In a rule issued Monday, the VA said its policy is to assist veterans seeking to register. But the policy said "to avoid disruptions to facility operations, voter registration drives are not permitted."
The VA policy notes that its volunteers, who must pass a background check, will be asked to inform inpatient veterans that they can get help registering.
Critics contend that many veterans, especially those living in nursing homes or homeless shelters, are typically low-income voters who favor Democrats and that the VA is playing politics.
"This is yet another action from the Bush administration that imposes barriers to registration and voting in front of Americans they don't trust to vote for their preferred candidate," Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, told AlterNet, a left-leaning, online alternative media outlet.
Rafferty said nobody disputes the VA's right to impose reasonable restrictions to avoid disruption of patient care — as long as they are consistently enforced.
But he said it is improper for the VA to altogether bar registration because it's considered political activity. The agency, Rafferty said, isn't free to pick and choose which constitutional freedoms veterans retain upon admission.
In the United States, he said, any group is allowed by federal law to canvass a neighborhood to register voters.
"People have the constitutional right to knock on your door," Rafferty said.
No group, partisan or not, has ever complained to officials at the supervisor of elections offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas about being barred from VA property.
John Pickens, a VA regional spokesman, said early last week that it had been policy in Florida to allow nonpartisan groups to register voters, though he could recall no group ever asking for permission to do so.
But by Friday, VA headquarters had amended its policy, and Pickens said Florida would follow that new rule.
In the end, the constitutionality of VA restrictions will be decided by the courts.
In 2004, Rafferty filed suit against the VA in California after a county Democratic chairman was refused permission to register voters at a Menlo Park VA campus.
A district court this year dismissed Rafferty's challenge because he failed to prove that any veteran was actually prevented from voting. That decision is being appealed.
The courts have ruled that it is constitutional for the VA to police political activity on its property if rules are imposed to prevent disruption or a lack of decorum.
A fix, Rafferty said, may have to come from the states.
Under an executive order during the Clinton presidency, federal agencies must agree, if requested by a state's top elections official, to become a "voter registration agency," Rafferty said.
That would require the VA to distribute registration materials, assist applicants in filling them out and then have them sent to the state. This month, California became the first state to ask the VA to take up the responsibility.
It remains unclear if California's request will be honored.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3436.