While Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently restored voting rights to more than 200,000 people with previous felony convictions, at least 14 other states will go to the polls in the November 2016 election with new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election.
Restrictions range from voter registration requirements, to early or absentee voting, to photo identification requirements or proof of citizenship. However, critics contend that voter restriction laws disproportionality affect poor and minority voters.Despite the inclusion of voting rights in a number of international human rights instruments and the importance of voting in protecting human rights in general, voter restrictions are nothing new in the United States, which has a long history of denying voting rights to women, people with low incomes, and people of color.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has said that voter disenfranchisement policies are not only discriminatory, but are in violation of international law. For example, both the right to vote and to public participation in government are enumerated in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states in part that “[e]veryone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) further codifies the right to vote requiring that, “[e]very citizen shall have the right and the opportunity…without unreasonable restrictions…to vote…” Additionally, Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) mandates that states “guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race…the right to participate in elections…” Even the United States Constitution mentions the right to vote five times. Yet, notwithstanding these protections, states continue to enact voting restrictions that deny these fundamental principles—a policy the Supreme Court sanctioned when it struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required federal “preclearance” of voting law changes in states with a history of voter discrimination.
Opponents argue that voting restrictions placed on convicted felons will affect nearly 6 million voting-age Americans in the November election, a majority of whom have served their sentence and now live in the community. However, General Comment 25 to the ICCPR makes clear that, “[i]f conviction for an offense is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offense and the sentence.” Despite this, some ex-offenders remain banned from voting for the rest of their lives. Advocates for voting rights, such as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, believe rights should be restored as soon as a person is released from prison. Nevertheless, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), African Americans and Hispanics are arrested and convicted for felonies at a higher rate than white Americans committing the same offenses– meaning, in states where felony disenfranchisement exists, more than 20 percent of African American voters cannot cast a ballot. In states that disenfranchise even ex-offenders, more than 40 percent of black men will not be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote this November.
Similar problems arise with voter ID laws. While proponents argue that increasing requirements for identification and in person voting will increase public confidence in the election process and decrease voter fraud, critics maintain that, “voter ID requirements are a dangerous and misguided step backwards in [the] ongoing quest for a more democratic society.” In fact, there is little evidence that voter fraud actually exists.
Challengers of voter ID laws maintain that the burden on voters and election administrators will unduly restrict the right to vote, unreasonably impacting minority voters. For example, in a recent challenge to North Carolina’s voter restrictions, the Supreme Court found that the law’s voter identification provisions “retained only those types of photo ID disproportionately held by whites and excluded those disproportionately held by African Americans.” Moreover, while as many as 25% of voting age African Americans do not have government-issued photo identification, only about 8% of white Americans are without a valid ID.
While some opponents of voting restrictions agree that cleaning up the election process is important, they fear that thousands of eligible voters may be denied their right to vote this fall. Rights advocates maintain voter restriction laws are implemented purely to limit the turnout of black, Latino, and low-income voters in an effort to achieve partisan ends. Nonetheless, what is important, says the ACLU, is the focus on expanding voter turn out and eliminating practices that “threaten the integrity” of elections—such as “improper purges of voters, voter harassment, and distribution of false information about when and where to vote.”