Basu: Group goes to U.N. to argue for Americans’ voting rights

Des Moines RegisterMarch 20, 2014 

BASU REKHA MCT

BILL NEIBERGALL — MCT

An NAACP delegation and several voting-rights organizations flew to Geneva last week to take their case for ex-offender voting rights in the United States to the United Nations.

Appealing to an international body to help solve a domestic issue is an unusual step for U.S. groups, signaling that efforts to address the problem through the usual domestic channels have been fruitless. The group went to take part in a review of how the United States is meeting its obligations as a signer of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a conference call before the trip, Hilary Shelton, an NAACP vice president, noted the international convention has the status of federal law, once signed. “Going to the United Nations is a way for us to have the U.N. evaluate what the U.S. has done to meet its obligations, from voting rights to civil rights,” he said.

Stripping former felons of their rights to vote disenfranchises many African-Americans, who are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, says the NAACP. Nearly 8 percent of adult African-Americans, or one out of every 13, is disenfranchised, according to the report “Democracy Imprisoned,” by the NAACP, the Sentencing Project and several other organizations. That compares with 1.8 percent of the non-African-American population. Nationwide, 2.2 million African-American adults can’t vote, though more than 40 percent completed their sentences. In Florida, 23 percent of African-American adults can’t vote; in Kentucky, 22 percent can’t vote; and in Virginia, 20 percent can’t vote. Iowa is one of only four states where ex-offenders have to apply to the governor to get their voting rights back after completing their sentences, thanks to the actions of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad on his first day in office. In Iowa, 3.2 percent of the population is black, yet black people account for 26 percent of the prison population.

The U.N. covenant was signed in 1966 and went into effect 10 years later. Article 25 says every citizen should have the right and opportunity to vote and run for elections “which shall be by universal and equal suffrage … and without unreasonable restrictions.” Article 26 says all people must be guaranteed “equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has criticized 11 states that restrict the voting rights of former inmates. Restricting former felons’ voting rights has generally been a Republican initiative. Cynics would say it’s because inmates are considered more likely to vote Democratic. Rather than discourage recidivism, evidence shows disenfranchisement marginalizes former inmates. The United States stands apart from most nations in both the number of prison inmates and the widespread practice of stripping inmates’ voting rights even after release.

That contradicts a growing national interest in rehabilitation and reintegration of former prisoners. Though states can set their own policies, the NAACP is asking the U.N. committee to, among other things, recommend that the federal government support the automatic restoration of voting rights and urge passage of the Democracy Restoration Act to do that. The federal government should also encourage states to inform detainees of the voting restoration process, the report says.

It’s embarrassing that civil rights supporters feel frustrated enough to take their case to the United Nations, which has no direct influence over American states. Instead of expending so much energy ensuring people don’t vote, our politicians should be encouraging more people to exercise that civic duty. As a country that has plenty to say to others about the importance of the democratic process, it shouldn’t have to take action by an international organization to compel us to ensure our citizens are able to exercise that right.

Email Ms. Basu, a columnist for the Des Moines (Iowa) Register, at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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