United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Exercising Their Rights: Veterans Receive Help Registering to Vote
Two men filling out forms
VA volunteer John Schaffhauser helps Veteran Larry Ghrist with his voter registration paperwork.
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

It is a right Veterans have fought to protect, so volunteers are making sure Veterans can exercise their right to vote while they are staying at a Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

While an inalienable right, voting registration and regulations often present a confusing and complicated challenge to Veterans. Vets may find themselves receiving treatment at their local VAMC on Election Day or visiting an out-of-state VAMC during their local primaries.

VA relies on its staff of voluntary service and social workers to guide Veterans through the registration and voting process. The 2010 midterm elections will be Norma Jean Graff’s second election season helping Veterans register.

“You have to have an open mind and really realize that it’s really important to vote — no matter which side of the fence you’re on,” Graff said.

She was working at the Bay Pines, Fla. VAMC Voluntary Service desk when the office received its first question about registering to vote for the 2008 elections. That prompted the VAMC to set up a traveling information booth.

Covering the medical center campus from the cafeteria to the nursing home, Graff and her fellow volunteers worked with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections monitor. An average of 40-50 Veterans and family members came to them each day for help.

“These men, they fought for this right. And I want to make sure that they have this right offered to them and that they take advantage of it if they want to.”
—volunteer John Schaffhauser

A nationwide mission

This year, volunteer John Schaffhauser made a point to start voter registration efforts early. Not only does he have one hundred-plus forms for absentee ballots and new voters at Philadelphia’s VA Medical Center, Schaffhauser gives each Veteran as much time as they need to go over and fill out the forms.

“There’s some days where I get three done, there’s some days where I get 10 done.

“We’re going to be displaying pictures of the candidates and what they’re running for,” Schaffhauser said. “It’s nothing more than an information sheet for them to go by.”

The election information and voter registration assistance rules come from Philadelphia’s non-profit election monitor, the Committee of Seventy. Like Graff, Schaffhauser takes his nonpartisan role in the elections very seriously.

If asked about his own party affiliation, Schaffhauser promptly informs the Veteran that it has nothing to do with their vote. The decision on whom to vote for is up to them.

“These men, they fought for this right. And I want to make sure that they have this right offered to them and that they take advantage of it if they want to.”

In addition to the non-partisan voter registration volunteers, VA Medical Centers advertise voter information with posters and flyers. Some medical centers even arrange for transportation to polling stations, according to Voluntary Service Specialist Marty Naugher.

Naugher says the campaign continues year-round at VA medical facilities. Derenda McCook, Chief of voluntary service at Bay Pines, said the importance of offering this service to Veterans was something she took to heart.

“Some of [the Veterans] did not know that they were able to vote,” McCook said. “That was a surprise to me, because they were Veterans and they didn’t know the rights they had fought to provide. They thought that because they were in here, and they weren’t at home, they couldn’t vote.”

Man doing paperwork
Keeping track of voter registration paperwork and deadlines keeps VA volunteer John Schaffhauser busy.
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

Counting every vote

The most common question from Veterans is: I don’t live here, but can I register?

The National Mail Voter Registration Form can be used to register to vote, to update your registration information due to a change of name, make a change of address, or to register with a political party. (See the Related Links list at the bottom of this article.) Veterans must then mail this form in to their state or local election office for processing.

State- and county-specific instructions get more complicated, but that’s where the local elections office can provide assistance.

The Pinellas County supervisor of elections office provides training to their voter registration volunteers who operate booths at the local VA and Veterans events. Registration drives held ahead of the 2008 elections generated 119 voter registration applications and 144 mail ballot requests from Veterans and VA staff, according to spokesperson Nancy Whitlock.

“We have always been involved in registration events for Veterans,” Whitlock said. “[Our office] feels very strongly about making things as easy as possible for our military personnel to participate in elections.”

Related links:
  Register to vote
  Contact your state election office