Felony voting restrictions in the U.S. are political anachronisms reflecting values incompatible with modern democratic principles. At the edge of the millennium these laws have no purpose. To the contrary, they arbitrarily deny convicted offenders the ability to vote regardless of the nature of their crimes or the severity of their sentences, they create political outcasts from taxpaying, law-abiding citizens who are ex-offenders, they distort the countrys electoral process and they diminish the black vote, countering decades of voting rights gains.
The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws has been exacerbated in the past quarter century as more offenders are convicted of felonies, more convicted felons are sent to prison, and prison sentences have grown longer. These trends reflect the adoption of public policies that emphasize incarceration and punishment as the principal means of crime control. While debate continues about the wisdom and efficacy of such policies, it is clear that they have had many unintended consequencesone of which is the significant increase in the disenfranchised population.
Given the major impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on the voting population, and in particular their strikingly disproportionate impact on African Americans, policymakers should consider alternative policies that will better protect voting rights without injury to legitimate state criminal justice interests. We believe the best course of action would be to remove conviction-based restrictions on voting rights. At the federal level, Congress should enact legislation to restore voting rights in federal electionsto citizens convicted of a felony, so that the ability to vote in federal elections is not subject to varying state laws. State legislatures should also eliminate state laws that curtail the franchise for persons with felony convictions within their states.
To the extent that legislators believe that incarcerated offenders should be excluded from the franchise, any legislation in this area should a) identify the important state interests served by such disenfranchisement; b) specify the crimes for which disenfranchisement is a reasonable and proportionate response; and c) require that imprisoned offenders only be excluded from voting if loss of the vote is imposed by a judge as part of a criminal sentence. Such legislation should also specify that restoration of the right to vote following release from prison is automatic and immediate.
We also urge the U.N. Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to consider more comprehensively the issues raised by disenfranchisement laws. In particular, we recommend the Human Rights Committee study the consistency of felony disenfranchisement with the electoral rights affirmed in the ICCPR and that both committees carefully assess whether disenfranchisement provisions that have a severe racially disparate impact, such as those in the United States, are consistent with the anti-discrimination principles of the ICCPR and CERD.