Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, in a formal legal opinion today, said the federal Hatch Act does not bar or limit non-partisan voter registration drives -- or voting education on the use of Connecticut's new voting scanning machines -- conducted on federal Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) property.
Blumenthal issued the opinion at the request of Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. Bysiewicz requested the opinion after being denied access to the federal VA hospital in West Haven in an attempt to conduct a voter registration and education drive.
The rejection came after the DVA issued a confusing and misleading -- even deceptive -- directive in citing the federal Hatch Act as a potential constraint on voting education or registration efforts at DVA facilities, Blumenthal said.
"In my view, this directive should be withdrawn and revised immediately by the Department of Veterans Affairs because it is flawed and unfounded in law and fatally unfair in its restraint on veterans rights," Blumenthal said. "The DVA directive cited by officials as a reason to constrain voting registration or education is confusing and misleading. Relying on the Hatch Act to limit such efforts is disingenuous and even deceptive. It may chill and discourage legitimate exercise of rights. It is unfounded legally and unjustified as policy. Its main effect is to inhibit veteran voting."
The DVA directive states "It is VHA (Veterans Health Administration) policy to assist patients to seek to exercise their right to register and vote; however, due to Hatch Act (Title 5 United States Code U.S.C. §§ 7321-7326) requirements and to avoid disruptions to facility operations, voter registration drives are not permitted."
Under the federal Hatch Act, federal employees of the DVA and other agencies, may not be involved in the conduct of partisan "political activities" in connection with their official duties.
Blumenthal said, "A non-partisan voter registration drive conducted by the Office of the Secretary of the State could not be deemed a political activity. Neither does it necessarily involve federal employees in their workplace. Even federal employees can be involved in non-partisan voter registration drives."
Blumenthal said that "political activity" is defined in federal regulations as "an activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office or partisan political group."
The U. S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has specifically stated that the conduct of non-partisan voter registration drives involving federal employees on duty or in their workplace does not violate the Hatch Act.
In his opinion to Bysiewicz, Blumenthal said, "The purpose and effect of your voter registration drive is to enable veterans to register and vote rather than to encourage votes for a particular political party or candidate. This drive is part of your Office's statutory responsibility as Commissioner of Elections to promote the orderly conduct of elections and maximize participation in such elections by all eligible voters, regardless of party affiliation.
"The voter registration and education outreach contemplated by your office is one aspect of an officially sanctioned -- indeed mandated -- overall goal of increasing voter registration and voter participation in a non-partisan manner."
Blumenthal added, "The effort planned by the Office of the Secretary of the State clearly is permissible, indeed commendable."
Bysiewicz said, "The practice and policy of banning voter registration drives at veterans facilities is a slap in the face to the people that have served, put their lives on the line and scarified the most for our fundamental freedoms. It does not matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, anyone can see that this policy is wrong and needs to be changed immediately. We are continuing to reach out to our colleagues across the country to raise awareness about this alarming violation of our veterans' rights."