NEW YORK - With the presidential polls just over a month away, tens of thousands of U.S. war veterans are still wondering whether or not they will be able to vote for the candidate of their choice.
About 100,000 former soldiers who are currently residing in government-run facilities can no longer vote because they cannot register without assistance from volunteers due to disabilities and serious illnesses.
Rights groups say they want to help war veterans with the registration process but officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are creating hurdles for them.
"They keep putting bureaucratic roadblocks in our way," said Sharon Kufeldt, vice president of Veterans for Peace. "There are very few weeks left to register voters and all this obstruction is costing time."
On Sep. 12, for example, Kufeldt and other activists asked officials for permission to register voters at a San Francisco VA facility, but to no avail. "We were told we could do so only after a process that could take two weeks," she said.
Kufeldt is now filing an emergency motion to enforce a court mandate that would allow her group access to the facilities for the purpose of registering voters.
Under current law, when a veteran moves into a VA facility, his or her old registration becomes invalid. The veteran must re-register before he or she can vote again. Last May, the authorities decided to ban nonpartisan voter registration at VA facilities.
There are about 1,358 VA facilities in all 50 states.
However, early this month, the VA had to take a step back after many legislators expressed their outrage at the practice. Officials now say they will allow voting assistance for veterans who can no longer vote since they moved into special facilities.
But, as a result of their past experience, most activists are reluctant to take the official word seriously. "While we are pleased that VA has changed course, we are not confident that they will follow through, because they have taken no action to date," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the Washington-based Veterans for Common Sense.
On Wednesday, Sullivan, along with the leaders of five other rights groups, sent a letter to the Senate urging its members to take immediate action on the proposed Veteran Voting Support Act, introduced by Democratic Senators Diane Feinstein and John Kerry.
"Veterans, who have performed the greatest service to the nation and risked the greatest sacrifice, deserve no less," the letter said. "Americans who have risked their lives in deserve every opportunity to exercise the right to vote."
If passed, the Veteran Voting Support Act would ensure equal opportunity for all war veterans to register to vote and to participate in the Nov. 4 elections. A similar bill was adopted by the House of Representatives on Sep. 17.
"The clock is running out," said Sullivan in a statement urging all citizens to vote, in addition to calling for VA officials to make "a strong effort to provide voter registration and voting assistance to as many veterans as possible."
In addition to Sullivan's group, other organisations that signed the letter include the American Association for People with Disabilities, the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University School of Law, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters.
In addition to war veterans, millions of U.S. citizens in several states are still being denied their right to vote because of felony convictions. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law.
In a report released in July 2006, the U.N. body said the U.S. "should adopt appropriate measures to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole".
If the U.N. recommendations were implemented, several states would have to change their laws and nearly four million citizens would have their voting rights restored.
Experts say that adopting the U.N. recommendations would bring the U.S. in line with the voting rights standards of nations such as Switzerland, Austria, and Ireland, whose laws already allow for post-prison restoration of voting rights.
Meanwhile, Kufeldt told IPS that she felt "outraged" at the behaviour of VA officials, although she hoped that they would mend their ways if the Senate approved the Veterans Voting Support Act.
"I don't understand why they are doing so," she told IPS. "The people who are in power have already cut their [veterans'] funding. They don't want veterans to vote."
According to Kufeldt, a vast majority of veterans currently residing at VA facilities have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many also served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.