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The United States may have the world’s most restrictive criminal disenfranchisement laws. We know of no other democracy besides the United States in which convicted offenders who have served theirsentences are nonetheless disenfranchised for life. A few countries restrict the vote for a short period after conclusion of the prison term: Finland and New Zealand, for example, restrict the vote for several years after completion of sentence, but only in the case of persons convicted of buying or selling votes or of corrupt practices. Some countries condition disenfranchisement of prisoners on the seriousness of the crime or the length of their sentence. Others, e.g., Germany and France, permit disenfranchisement only when it is imposed by a court order.

Many countries permit persons in prison to vote. According to research by Penal Reform International,60 prisoners may vote in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Zimbabwe. In Germany, the law obliges prison authorities to encourage prisoners to assert their voting rights and to facilitate voting procedures. The only prisoners who may not vote are those convicted of electoral crimes or crimes (e.g., treason) that undermine the “democratic order,” and whose court-imposed sentence expressly includes disenfranchisement.61

60 Research by Penal Reform International may be obtained from CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) in Washington, D.C. Also on file at Human Rights Watch.

61 The American Series of Foreign Penal Code: Federal Republic of Germany, Title I, § 45 (5). A judge may bar a convicted offender from voting only if the offense is punishable by more than one year of imprisonment and if the crime falls within enumerated sections of the Penal Code covering such crimes as treason, electoral fraud, espionage, membership in an illegal organization.

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