The Sentencing Project and two national civil rights organizations have asked an international human rights body for a hearing on felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States and other countries.
The groups may know as early as next week whether the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will accept their request for a hearing. The groups want the commission to decide whether laws and policies prohibiting convicted felons from voting violate the right to vote free from discrimination under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights.
"We wanted to bring attention to the issue of felony disenfranchisement and put a human rights framework on the issue," said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, a voting rights attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "We've been litigating the issue in the courts and felt we sort of hit a block in our system."
By casting the issue as a human rights matter, she explained, advocacy groups have another avenue--an international one--in which to seek change.
The American Civil Liberties Union has joined the Lawyers' Committee and the Sentencing Project in requesting the hearing.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which promotes and protects human rights, has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and is an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States, of which the United States is a member. Any person, group of persons or non-governmental organization may present a petition to the commission alleging violations of the rights protected in the American Convention and/or the American Declaration.
The American Declaration is not binding, according to international law scholars, but the commission's findings of facts and decisions are not a futile exercise. To the extent an authoritative body finds violations by the U.S. and the U.S. does not comply, it resonates and places the country in somewhat of an embarrassing position. The commission has had an enormous amount of credibility in the Americas for over 50 years, according to scholars.
If the commission grants their hearing request, the three organizations will provide an overview of the effect of felony disenfranchisement laws on racial and ethnic minorities, said Johnson-Blanco. That overview would include testimony from U.S. citizens who have lost the right to vote, academics who have studied the effects of these laws, and the attorneys and leaders of organizations involved in changing the laws.
Thirty-five states prohibit voting by individuals who are not incarcerated but are on parole; 30 deny voting rights to persons on felony probation; 10 states restrict the voting rights of certain individuals who have completed their sentences, and in two states, all individuals with felony convictions must obtain clemency from the governor before they can vote again, according to the Sentencing Project. Only two states-- Vermont and Maine-- do not disenfranchise individuals with felony convictions while incarcerated.