The recent ban by the Veterans Administration on allowing voter registration in its facilities has a familiar ring to it. All this has happened before.
The controversy centers around a May 5 VA directive claiming voter registration drives at its facilities are not permitted because they could disrupt other operations and may pose a violation of the Hatch Act. This is the law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity on the job.
VA spokesman Matt Smith said the reason for the directive stemmed from wanting to ensure that staff stay focused on the work at hand and don’t have to decide the partisan political agendas of those who want to conduct voter registration drives on their premises.
For years the VA had allowed local managers to decide whether to permit such drives, Ian Urbina reported in The New York Times. But in 2004 a Democratic Party chairman in California filed suit when he was refused permission to register voters at a VA campus. A lower court ruled against the county chairman in January, saying he failed to prove any veteran was actually prevented from voting.
In May the VA banned all outside groups from registration drives on its properties. The same month, VA officials turned down a request by the California secretary of state to allow the sites to become official voter registration agencies that would distribute materials and help applicants fill out cards and return them.
A federal appellate court is about to hear arguments following the lower court’s January decision. All this despite President Bill Clinton’s executive order in 1994 requiring federal agencies to help register, distribute materials and help applicants fill out cards and return them.
Now why does all this sound familiar?
Back in 1984, New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya ordered his state agencies to provide voter-registration services. This was followed by similar actions in New York, Ohio and Texas. But the Texas employment commissioner balked. He filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor asking whether state workers — partly paid with federal funds — should distribute voter-registration forms.
Ronald Reagan had been elected in 1980, and the 1982 mid-term elections suggested a strong public opposition against Reagonomics. That was the backdrop to the controversy that followed.
Donald Devine, directing the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, implied in a letter to the then Democratic governors of New York, Ohio and Texas that state personnel were being forced to influence people to register Democratic. Then he went the next insulting step, asking the governors to turn over materials used in federal programs and suggested their grants were in jeopardy if they didn’t comply.
Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste called it "blackmail." Mario Cuomo of New York said Devine was in fact curtailing access to the ballot box. And Texas Gov. Mark White called a press conference at a state agency in which he passed out registration cards.
Within days after Devine’s letter was made public, the Republican U.S. Senate approved a resolution encouraging voter registration drives at all levels of government. There was no violation of the Hatch Act nor conflict with funds paying for state personnel.
House hearings chastised Devine for selectively applying federal legislation and misapplying it for partisan purposes. to "intimidate" the governors.
Later, New York reported about 150,000 new registrations. Ohio lottery, liquor stores and unemployment offices came up with 59,000 forms. In Texas, 450 human services offices received desktop registration dispensers, and a flyer was sent to welfare, Medicaid and food-stamp recipients.
In the final analysis, trying to block voter registration is an old ploy. It is the kind of dirty tricks Richard Nixon’s operations and Karl Rove’s antics were famous for. It is unworthy of our times. By its very nature, registering voters — whoever does it and whoever the registrants are — is a necessary civic activity, not a partisan one.
Perhaps the next revisions of the Civil Rights Act should include a category for federal administrators who obstruct voter registration.
(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He is author of "The Rise of Hispanic Political Power." E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com)