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Fighting for Voting Rights for All Americans

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November 13, 2009

Today marks the second day of a two-day United Nations forum on "minorities and effective political participation." Chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the forum has attracted legislators, academics and members of the nongovernmental organization community from around the world to Geneva to address the continuing problems faced by minority communities engaging in the political process.

Although the U.S. holds itself out as a model democratic society, the benefit of democracy continues to elude millions of Americans. The U.S. has repeatedly failed to protect the voting rights of minority communities, and has turned a blind eye to state actions that make it more difficult for minority citizens to participate in the political process. The ways in which people of color are systematically kept from the ballot box in the United States are many and varied. The ACLU submission to be presented at the forum focuses on two populations whose voting rights the U.S. government has consistently and repeatedly failed to protect: Native peoples and those with criminal records, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.

Though on its face race-neutral, felony disfranchisement – the set of policies and practices that bar 5.3 million Americans with criminal records from the ballot box – has a particularly devastating impact on minority individuals and communities. Across the country, 8.25 percent of the African-American voting-age population is barred from voting due to felony disfranchisement laws, compared to only 2.42 percent of the general voting age population. In states with the greatest levels of African-American disfranchisement, those rates rise to more than 20 percent. If incarceration rates hold steady, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disfranchised at some point in their lives.

Indeed, the origins of felony disfranchisement lie in explicit efforts to keep African-Americans from the ballot box. After passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, southern states began to tailor their felony disfranchisement laws to target African-Americans. For example, Mississippi revised its constitution to impose disfranchisement as a penalty specifically for crimes of which black people were most frequently convicted. In 1902 at the Virginia Constitutional Convention, felony disfranchisement laws were introduced with the stated intent to "eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State." These laws remain in effect today.

Though the movement for equal rights has led to dramatic gains for Indian voters and transformed elected bodies that serve Indian communities, Indians continue to struggle against ongoing disfranchisement and discriminatory election practices that prevent them from participating equally in the political process. The recent ACLU report Voting Rights in Indian Country, which accompanied our U.N. submission, outlines current obstacles to Indian voting, including electoral systems that dilute Indian voting strength; discriminatory voter registration procedures; onerous voter identification requirements; lack of language assistance at the polls; noncompliance with the Voting Rights Act and the historic refusal of our government to recognize Indians as U.S. citizens.

Human rights standards protecting the right to vote, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, are robust because the right to vote is fundamental in every way. And yet the United States continues to fail to protect the voting rights of minority communities, in violation of the United States' commitments under international treaties that enshrine the right to vote.

The Obama administration has committed itself to enforcing the Voting Rights Act, which is a good step toward protecting the fundamental right to vote. But as our submission to the U.N. demonstrates, much remains to be done to protect this right for all Americans.

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