WASHINGTON - A team of international observers who are monitoring the November 2 elections is calling for major reforms in the U.S. electoral process to promote confidence in that each voting system.
Several of the recommended reforms will require legislation, thus making it impracticable for them to be implemented before this year's elections the run-up to which has been marred by accusations and counter-accusations of ''dirty tricks'' by both Republicans and Democrats designed to affect voter turnout.
In a letter to the chairmen of both major parties Wednesday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the nation's largest coalition of civil and human rights groups, called for both to ''cease and desist'' in any efforts to conduct aggressive challenges to voters at the polls, particularly those that are "likely to impact minority voters more harshly than non-minority voters."
"We have worked too hard for too long to enfranchise racial and ethnic minority voters in this country," wrote LCCR director Wade Henderson.
"We fought for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other laws to ensure that every American has a right to vote and to have his or her vote counted."
The 20-member international team, which was invited by Global Exchange, a human rights group based in San Francisco, compiled a 48-page report, based on visits with polling officials and independent experts in Washington, D.C., Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio over the past month.
The group is one of two international delegations that are monitoring the elections. A second, official delegation from the Organization and Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was invited by the State Department in August.
While it will not have the authority to assess the fairness of the vote, it is expected to issue a report on any problems or shortcomings it witnesses as part of a new program for all 55 member-states of the OSCE.
The Global Exchange group, which includes election-monitoring experts from four continents, is a non-governmental initiative that will rely on the voluntary cooperation of election officials in the District of Columbia and the five states it is monitoring.
Participants include experts from Argentina, Australia, England, Canada, Chile, Ghana, India, Ireland, Mexico, Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Wales, and Zambia.
While the group said that state and state officials had already implemented a number of reforms to deal with problems that became apparent in the 2000 elections, "there are a number of existing problems that pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the 2004 General Elections in the United States."
It also acknowledged that too little time remains to correct some of them, those that could ensure greater transparency and participation in the process should be implemented to the greatest extent possible under the law.
Among the most-important changes called for in the group's report is to assure a ''paper trail'' for touch-screen voting which is being introduced in a number of states across the country.
"Transparency at the polls is critical and cannot be readily established without voter verification," the group said, adding that, where touch-screen voting is used, an independent agency and a parallel monitoring process should be adopted to achieve "optimum transparency."
In addition, the group called for the universal use of provisional ballots, or those that can be cast by voters who, for one reason or another, might otherwise be disqualified for technicalities, such as showing up at the wrong voting site.
So long as the voter is indeed eligible to vote, s/he should not be denied the opportunity to cast a ballot that counts, according to the delegation which said that was "surely the intention of the Help America Vote Act of 2002."
This was a particular concern of delegation members who visited Ohio. The report noted their concerns over a recent directed by the state's secretary of state discouraging poll workers from providing provisional ballots to voters who go to the wrong voting precinct.
They also found that the bulk of voter registration and education outreach is carried out by civic groups that have not been provided with confirmation of new voter registrations. Both practices, it said, may discourage turnout and disproportionately affected low-income minority groups.
For the longer term, the delegation strongly criticized the lack of independent and impartial bodies to administer, oversee, and certify the elections, rather than the reliance by the current system on monitoring by individuals affiliated with political parties.
"Partisan oversight and administration of elections is not the international norm," the report stated, "as it builds in the possibility for the perception of conflicts of interest."
"One of the surprising things we learned is that most voting jurisdictions have no mechanisms for non-partisan polling observation," said David MacDonald, a former Canadian Minister of Parliament, who co-chaired the delegation.
"The Democrats get to pick their poll monitor, and the Republicans pick theirs. But who represents the interests of the growing percentage of Americans who are Independents?"
Moreover, the group endorsed recommendations made by the OSCE, the Carter Center for Human Rights, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and other expert bodies that have called for independent, non-partisan poll-watchers and called as well for U.S. states to invite domestic and international observers to future elections "to help create an environment of civic transparency."
The group also called for the enfranchisement of former felons who have served their time in prison and strongly criticized laws of the kind that disenfranchised tens of thousands of Floridians in the 2000 election and still exist in Florida, Virginia, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa, Arizona, and Alabama.
"This practice falls outside of international or even U.S. norms and is an unreasonable restriction that creates subcategories of citizenship," the group said.
In Florida, the group expressed special concern about possible challenges by election monitors, the lack of independent review of electronic voting machines that created so much havoc in 2004, and the continued felony-related disenfranchisement of minority voters.
It also called for greater public financing of elections, particularly in view of the disproportionate degree that private funders play in campaigns for Congress.
"In circumstances where the amount a candidate spends is directly related to the likelihood of success, it is not surprising that voters may sense that politicians are more concerned with big campaign contributors than with individual voters," the group said.
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