Is the right to vote a human right?

10/17/12 Seán Kinane
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According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to vote is a human right; but many people in the United States are denied the right to vote for a range of reasons.

Tonight at the University of Tampa a panel will discuss the human right to vote in the context of what some are calling voter suppression laws around the country.

One panelist, Jamil Dakwar, is director of the ACLU’s Human Right’s Program in New York.

"Well, voting rights have been recognized for years under international human righs law by many countries, including the United States, as a fundamental human right. That means this is a right to everyone who is a citizen of a state is entitled to this right. The only exception is for non-citizens, they would not be entitled and don't have the right to vote. It's a fundamental right that is central to the enjoyment of other rights, especially in a democratic system when you want full participation in public life and the political process. It evolved over the years with the right of democratic rule, particularly after World War II. It was first recognized under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 which the US championed and helped adopt at the United Nations and subsequently it was also recognized in international human rights treaties, particularly in the International Covenant on Political Rights which was ratified by the US in 1992. The right to vote is not only a civil right, it's an internationally recognized human right."

But this human right and this civil right, the right to vote, is sometimes taken away from people. For example, in Florida ex-felons have a difficult time getting their right to vote restored and we have purges of people on the voter rolls. What can you say about this chipping away of this right?

"That's exactly what the human right to vote means. It means that government, whether it's a federal government or state and local levels are prohibited. They cannot place unreasonable restrictions on the right to vote. They are supposed to provide fair and equal access to the ballot. They are supposed to make sure that vulnerable communities, especially people with disabilities, the elderly, students who are voting outside their districts and people who are also traveling, that they are able to cast their votes even if they are not in their state. Particular protection and emphasis is on the right of minority groups to participate in the election. In fact, this is an issue that has been brought to the human rights bodies at the international level. Again, under US human rights obligations the US was to report to the Human Right's committee, for example, in Geneva at the United Nations on measures that were taken to protect the right to vote particularly of those who were sentenced and completed their sentences. The Committee issued a very specific recommendation back in 2006 and asked the US government to insure that the right to vote is protected for those who have already completed their sentences. The US government will appear again before the Human Right's Committee next year and so the 2012 elections in a few weeks will be closely monitored and will be assessed whether the US has met it's international human rights obligations."

Is there a right to vote in the US Constitution?

"The right to vote is a part of our Constitutional system where there is an important 15th Amendment that allows people to participate on an equal basis. It took away some of the restrictions that were part of the legacy of Jim Crow and racial discrimination in the country. More importantly it's a right that is a part of the freedom of expression First Amendment but also has been recognized under our statute and under Voting Rights Act which is the landmark legislation that was passed by Congress in 1965 and has really made sure that there would be voting rights protected particularly in states where there were disenfranchisement rules and laws that made it more difficult for minority groups to participate, particularly African American groups.

Finally, Jamil Dakwar, you're part of a panel tonight that will be speaking about the human right to vote. Tell us more about where that will be and when it will be?

"The human rights event tonight will be at the University of Tampa, it will be from 6 to 8pm in the University auditorium. We will be joined by the NAACP, the deputy chair of the NAACP board, Mr. Leon Russell will be speaking about the history of voter suppresssion. We will also be joined by another colleague, Judeka Adi from the national office of the NAACP who is a special assistant to the president of the NAACP. We will also be joined by the ACLU of Florida and we will be talking about different aspects of voter suppression, the denial of the right to vote and the obstacles and restrictions on voter registration and access to the ballott. The issue of limitations on when and where individuals can register, the enhanced eligibility requirements that were put forward. There will be also a discussion about the increasing disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. We'll be looking at international human rights law and committments that were made as we discussed earlier. So we'll cover the issue of voting rights from different aspects and I'm looking forward to a very interesting discussion this evening."

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