WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday that it would no longer ban voter registration drives among veterans living at federally run nursing homes, shelters for the homeless and rehabilitation centers across the country.
In May, the department said such drives would violate the prohibition on political activity by federal employees and would be disruptive.
The reversal came after months of pressure from state election officials, voting rights groups and federal lawmakers who said that such drives made it easier for veterans to take part in the political process.
Veterans' participation could be particularly important this year in a presidential election in which the handling of the Iraq war and treatment of veterans are major campaign issues.
"VA has always been committed to helping veterans exercise their constitutional right to vote, which they defended for all Americans while serving their nation," said James Peake, secretary of veterans affairs.
"We've now established a uniform approach to helping those of our patients who need assistance to register and to vote."
Veterans' officials said that they would welcome state and local election officials and nonpartisan groups to hospitals and outpatient clinics to help register voters but that such assistance needed to be coordinated by those facilities in order to avoid disruptions to patient care.
More than 100,000 people reside for a month or longer at VA facilities nationally, a number that has grown as soldiers return wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The real question now," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, "is whether the VA will implement the new policy in time for the November election and whether local and state voting officials will take proactive steps to sign up the veterans at these facilities."
The new policy requires that information about the right of VA patients to register and vote be posted in every veterans' hospital and that all patients be provided a copy of these rights when they are admitted to a veterans' facility.
"Given the sacrifices that the men and women who have fought in our armed services have made, providing easy access to voter registration services is the very least we can do," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.