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Addressing Voting Rights in an Election Year

Laleh Ispahani,
Racial Justice Program
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February 20, 2008

This morning, U.S. NGOs had their second meeting with the CERD Committee. Expecting we’d be asked to discuss those issues the Committee has already directed the United States to answer at its hearing on U.S. compliance tomorrow, we were a little surprised – but not unprepared! – when Danish representative Morton Kjaerum opened by asking about voting rights.

Noting that the U.S. faces an important election this year, Kjaerum wryly added that even many non-Americans would like to participate in this election. (He’d accept less than a full vote, settling for one-tenth of one, he said, smiling.) What interested him, he said, was which Americans would not be voting in the election, and why. Patrick Thornberry of the United Kingdom also asked what constitutes a felony in the U.S., and whether those who require language assistance when voting are provided it.

We explained that the U.S. is an anomaly among western democracies with state laws disfranchising over 5.3 million disproportionately minority Americans because they have criminal records, although most of them are no longer in prison and millions have long- finished sentences.(We advised Mr. Thornberry that the U.S. legal system generally considers crimes punishable by one year or more to be felonies.) We noted that the 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia, 60 percent African-American, have had no say in the making of federal law that has governed them for the last 200 years. We underscored the impact on the indigenous, adding that in the 2004 national elections, 24 Native Alaskan villages did not even have polling places, and Alaska continues to administer “English-only” elections, despite federal legislation requiring it to offer minority language assistance. Additionally, voters displaced by Hurricane Katrina — mostly African-American — were unable to vote by absentee ballot in post-Katrina state elections. And,deceptive voting practices, we noted, continue to be used to suppress minority votes: by misleading and deceiving voters, telling them the date of the election has shifted or thattheir polling place has changed.

The current administration has made matters worse through chronic neglect and under-enforcement of federal voting laws. Since 2000, enforcement of the central anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act is at a virtual standstill, with only a handful of prosecutions for claims of discrimination against African-American voters. And enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act has been biased in favor of reducing the number of voters rather than enfranchising new voters.

Given that voting was not an issue the Committee had asked the U.S. to address, we now eagerly wait to see if the Committee will nevertheless raise its timely and grave concerns with the delegation representing the U.S. government, and if so, what it will say.

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