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Amnesty Int'l Focuses on Americans' Voting Rights

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - With the U.S. presidential polls just over 100 days away, a watchdog group that usually focuses on freeing political prisoners around the world has launched a campaign to make sure all Americans get to exercise their right to vote this year.

"There is no better time to rock the vote for human rights than now," said Larry Cox, executive director of the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International, a widely respected international rights watchdog group.

Last week, Cox's organization teamed up with Rock the Vote and other groups stepping up their efforts to make sure that no adult citizen of the United States is deprived of the right to vote.

"Under Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to participate in government and open elections," Cox added in a statement urging activists to intensify the campaign to protect voting rights.

Amnesty and other groups taking part in the voter registration drive fear that millions of Americans may not be able to cast their ballots in the presidential polls if certain shortcomings in the current electoral system are not addressed before the presidential polls in November.

Studies show that the 2000 election, which was won by President George W. Bush by a close margin of less than 500 votes in Florida, was fraught with a variety of problems, including intimidation of minority voters by local public officials.

According to a 2001 Caltech-MIT study, more than 4 million Americans from all over the country were disenfranchised in 2000. They were either denied the right to vote or have their votes counted due to poorly designed ballots and/or faulty equipment.

In 2004, the electoral process remained as faulty as it was before, even though some 25,000 Americans, including legal experts, took an active part in non-partisan "Election Protection" efforts across the country.

Campaigners accuse the Republican Party leadership of attempts to keep the current system as it is because it fears a large number of young people who are now eligible to vote might prove to be catalysts in their possible defeat in the upcoming presidential elections.

"House Republicans have worked against meaningful election reform at every turn," said Tanya Clay House of People for the American Way, a Washington, DC-based organization that is at the forefront of efforts to protect voters' rights and is part of the Democracy Campaign, an umbrella group representing a wide array of grassroots organizations.

House and other activists said they were extremely disappointed -- but not surprised -- by the Republican response to Representative Zoe Lofgren's bill requiring emergency ballots in cases where machines break down on polling day. The bill was blocked a little over a week ago.

"Emergency ballots are just that -- for emergencies," House said. "So, what's the problem? Don't we want to ensure every eligible citizen's vote is cast and counted?"

Proponents say, if passed, the bill would have standardized the processes already implemented in some states and made it clear that emergency ballots are to serve as a back-up option when machines crash, and not be used interchangeably with provisional ballots.

"[The Republican] opposition to the bill aborted efforts to improve our electoral system, and instead defended the broken election administration system that far too many American voters have become accustomed too," said House. "Lofgren's bill has a minimal cost compared to what we spend to protect the vote for citizens in other countries."

The current U.S. electoral system is also facing the scrutiny of the international community. Recently, a United Nations rights body took note of discriminatory practices against minority voters in certain parts of the United States and called for Washington to address such issues in compliance with the international treaty against racial discrimination.

The Geneva-based UN Committee against Racial Discrimination (CERD) is also critical of the fact that in several states of the United States, ex-felons are not allowed to vote, a vast majority of whom are African American and Latino men.

Meanwhile, campaigners say thousands of people are taking part in their initiative to help citizens with the registration process. Some are working closely with the election authorities; others have signed up to look into legal matters.

The campaign has also set up a nationwide toll-free voters' hotline for free and multilingual legal advice on issues concerning the right to vote.

© 2008 One World

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