Voter Laws Need Reform, Groups Say

NEW YORK - One of her sons is serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq while another who has just turned 18 is about to join the Navy. Yet despite being a mother of two U.S. soldiers, Annette McWashington Pruitt cannot cast her ballot in the upcoming presidential polls because the laws in her home state of Alabama do not allow ex-felons to participate in elections.

Pruitt cannot exercise her right to vote because in 2003 she was convicted of receiving stolen property.

Come this November, like Pruitt, millions of U.S. citizens will not be allowed to vote in the presidential elections because they served time in jail for having committed certain crimes in the past. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), currently a patchwork of state felony disenfranchisement laws -- albeit inconsistent from state to state -- prevent a whopping 5.3 million citizens with a past felony conviction from voting.

A little over a week ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Alabama challenging the election authorities' decision to turn down Pruitt's request for to register to vote. Lawyers associated with the nation's largest civil rights group argue that the state election authorities had no right to reject Pruitt's application because her conviction in 2003 for stolen property had never been considered a so-called disenfranchising offence by the state legislature.

Alabama state law allows a person convicted of a crime involving 'moral turpitude' to apply for voting rights restoration from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, but the applicant must have paid all fines, court fees, costs, and restitution associated with his or her sentence before becoming eligible to vote. Voting rights defenders say denying the right to vote based on one's inability to pay these fees amounts to income-based discrimination.

'There is no compelling or legitimate governmental interest in keeping a wealth-based voter registration system that is nothing more than a modern-day poll tax,' said Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU in Alabama. 'Everyone knows Alabama's ugly voting rights history. It is disappointing that discrimination based on income, and completely arbitrary disenfranchisement, continues to permeate our voting system. These practices need to end.'

In Alabama, the legislature has adopted a list of about 15 serious felonies that fit the definition of 'moral turpitude' for disenfranchisement. But, as the ACLU has charged, in 2005, the state attorney general developed his own broader list of disenfranchising felonies. His list includes 16 felonies that are disqualifying, including passing a bad check. The election authorities are also reputedly rejecting voters' applications for crimes not mentioned in the list of the attorney general.

Voting rights activists fear that, in addition to ex-felons, hundreds of thousands of citizens may also not be able to cast their ballots in the presidential polls if certain other loopholes in the current electoral system are not fixed before 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 authorities.

As a 2001-Caltech-MIT study suggests, over four million U.S. citizens from all over the country were disenfranchised in 2000. They were either denied the right to vote or just lost their votes due to poorly designed ballots and/or faulty equipment. The situation was no less different in the 2004 election, even though thousands of citizens, including legal experts, took an active part in non-partisan 'Election Protection' efforts across the country.

Those campaigning for increased voter registration accuse the Republican leadership of trying to keep the current electoral system intact due to fears that a large number of young people, minorities and naturalised citizens would vote against its conservative agenda. 'Republicans have worked against meaningful election reforms at every turn,' said Tanya Clay House of People for the American Way, an independent group.

Recently, the Republicans strongly opposed a legislative move in the House of Representatives that required emergency ballots in cases where machines break down on election day. The bill was blocked by the Republicans about two weeks ago. Disappointed with the Republican response, House added in a statement: 'Emergency ballots are just that -- for emergencies. So what's the problem?'

If passed, the bill would have standardised the electoral procedures already being implemented in some states. The bill, according to House, would have required a 'minimal cost as compared to what we spend to protect the vote for citizens in other countries.'

Voter identification laws in certain states are also an issue of mounting concern to rights groups. Last April, in a majority decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana state law requiring voters to produce photo identification at polling stations, despite arguments by civil rights lawyer that it would place an additional burden on poor and minority voters.

There are millions of eligible voters who don't have the IDs these laws require. '[They include] senior citizens who don't drive, students, the disabled, low-income people, all of whom have the right to vote,' said Kathryn Kolbert, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, a rights advocacy group. 'These laws are intended to suppress voter turnout.'

Controversies surrounding the fairness of the U.S. electoral system have drawn international attention. Recently, the Geneva-based U.N. Committee against Racial Discrimination (CERD) criticised the fact that in several U.S. states, ex-felons are not allowed to vote, a vast majority of whom are African Americans and other disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

In respond to U.S.-based rights organisations' complaints, the U.N. body has urged the U.S. to address the issue of discriminatory practices against African Americans and other voters belonging to minority communities.

Meanwhile, last week, the well-respected international watchdog group Amnesty International declared it was joining the U.S.-based rights group Rock the Vote and others who have launched a countrywide campaign to make sure all citizens get to exercise their right to vote this year.

'There is no better time to rock the vote for human rights than now,' said Amnesty's Larry Cox. 'Under the Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to participate in government and open elections.'

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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