I can clearly recall the image sprawled across the cover of my local newspaper back in 2005: a photograph of a group of Iraqi women, dressed in niqabs, proudly waving their purple inked thumbs shortly after casting their ballots in the first election following the fall of the Hussein regime. Seventy-five percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. This momentous occasion came on the heels of a presidential election convened in Afghanistan. American politicians who had supported the invasion and subsequent wars viewed this as an example of the United States transporting its values of freedom and democracy across the globe. But one must ask if these values are truly being protected and promoted within our own borders.
We often talk about voter suppression laws, as running afoul of the basic American right to vote. However, these measures also contradict our obligations as a country under international agreements. Felon disenfranchisement laws, limits on early voting—especially Sunday voting—and voter ID laws disproportionately affect minorities. This exacerbates our failure to uphold a UN convention to eliminate racial discrimination, adding yet another reason to reject these suppressive measures.
This year we have seen states impose strict voter ID laws under the guise of ensuring that the voting process is secure. These laws disproportionately impact the right to vote for communities of color, as the Brennan Center has documented. The United States is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which requires nations, including our own, to "pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms.” In 2001, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called into question the “political disenfranchisement of a large segment of the ethnic minority population [in the United States] who are denied the right to vote by disenfranchising laws and practices.” They urged the United States to take necessary steps to ensure that all of its citizens are able to access the vote without any form of discrimination.
We are moving backwards from this goal. Currently, numerous state laws prohibit inmates and the formerly incarcerated from participating in the vote. The result? 8 percent of African Americans are disenfranchised, three times the national average. Allowing these individuals to vote would be one way to decrease disparity and comply with human rights law.
Photo ID requirements to vote disproportionately impact minority citizens who, for a variety of potential reasons, are more likely to lack required identification documents. The NAACP is presenting evidence of these suppressive measures this week to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. In March, the organization will send a delegation to Geneva to gather support from the UN Human Rights Council.
Even though many of our nation’s political leaders point to the United States as a superior model of participatory democracy, other countries far outmatch the U.S. in eliminating discriminatory voting practices. The Constitutional Court of South Africa has struck down measures that disenfranchise prisoners, remarking, “The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood.”
The same cannot be said for judges here in the U.S., and the Brennan Center estimates that more than 5 million Americans are ineligible to vote due to a criminal conviction. Only two states allow prisoners to vote. However, in the case of Sauvé v. Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that laws that sought to eliminate prisoners’ ability to vote failed to further any reasonable state aim.
The U.S. must take bigger steps to comply with the obligations it has agreed to and promoted internationally by enacting measures that improve minority access to the ballot box. There exists a troubling contradiction when so many of our resources continue to be invested in making sure people abroad are able to vote and our own citizens find it difficult to do so in their own neighborhoods. As Congressman Emanuel Cleaver passionately expressed in a recent House hearing on voter suppression laws, “we’re trying to get folks around the world to vote and stopping it at home."