U.N. Committee Says U.S. Bans on Former Prisoner Voting Violate International Law

Document Date: August 25, 2006

U.S. Compliance with U.N. Recommendations Critical to Restoring Vote to Millions

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law. Concluding Observations
) (Recommendation 35) released on Friday, July 28 by the Committee call for the restoration of voting rights to people released from prison and raise concerns that the widespread practice of denying voting rights to people with felony convictions disproportionately impacts the rights of minority groups and are counterproductive to efforts to reintegrate those re-entering society after prison.

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” said the Human Rights Committee in their recommendations.

If the U.N. recommendations are implemented, 36 states would change their laws and nearly four million Americans would have their voting rights restored. Internationally, 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.

The recommendations follow hearings held on July 17 and 18, 2006 in Geneva, Switzerland where U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was assessed. Voting rights emerged as an issue area of particular concern for committee members.

The ICCPR covers a wide range of issues, but of the 25 specific written questions that the Committee, in March 2006, asked the U.S. to answer, after reviewing the October 2005 U.S. report on its treaty compliance, one was “Please provide more details on the rules governing the removal and restoration of the right to vote for those convicted of criminal offenses, and explain to what extent they comply with article 25 of the covenant [right to political participation]?” At the July 2006 oral examination of the U.S. delegation, composed of high-level representatives from the U.S. State Department, the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, the ACLU, on behalf of itself and other U.S. organizations, made an oral presentation to the Committee on voting rights, focusing on felony disfranchisement policies. The ACLU also reported on the issue in its “Shadow Report” to this Committee, a report that examines U.S. violations of human rights protected under the ICCPR, Dimming the Beacon of Freedom U.S. Violations of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights, available at: /intlhumanrights/gen/25937res20060620.html

The New York Times, in a July 31, 2006 editorial about the Human rights Committee’s report, wrote: “The hearings…dealt with how the United States treats its prison inmates, particularly the disenfranchisement laws that bar more than 5 million convicted felons from the polls. The American representative weakly defended the practice’s legality, but dodged explaining its rationale, saying the rules come from the states, not the federal government….the committee said that blanket disenfranchisement was inconsistent with the covenant and served no rehabilitative purpose. Noting that disenfranchisement disproportionately affects minorities, the report urged the United States to restore voting rights to citizens who have served their sentences or who are released on parole. The report is not legally binding. But it reminds us how poorly we treat ex-offenders compared with democracies abroad.” To obtain the full editorial from the archives of the New York Times, go to

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