Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!
More on politics & human rights |
economy & development |
peace & security |
Print this page
Visit AfricaFocus Bookshop US |
USA/Africa: Fair Elections?
Oct 26, 2004 (041026)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
A team of African and other international observers monitoring the
U.S. presidential election issued their first pre-election report
last week. The report by Fair Election International (FEI),
entitled "Election Readiness: It Is Never Too Late for
Transparency," called attention to the need for reforms, including
nonpartisan administration of elections and reducing the
disproportionate disenfranchisement of minority and poor voters.
In 2000, over 4.6 million potential U.S. voters were blocked from
voting by laws that deny prisoners and ex-felons the right to vote.
Over 800,000 of them were in the contested state of Florida. These
disenfranchisement laws, which vary from state to state and which
have been made more stringent in recent decades, have a
discriminatory and politically significant effect on African
Americans and other minorities.
The FEI pre-election observer team visited five states: Arizona,
Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Ohio. Another delegation will
revisit Florida, Missouri, and Ohio on election day, November 2.
The pre-election team included experienced electoral experts from
Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, England, Ghana, India,
Ireland, Mexico, Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Africa,
Thailand, Wales, and Zambia. The five African observers were
Denis Kadima, the executive director of the Electoral Institute of
Southern Africa; Kwesi Addae, the founder of Pollwatch Africa in
Ghana; Elijah Rubvuta, who directs the Foundation for Democratic
Process in Zambia; and both Chief Electoral Officer Advocate Pansy
Tlakula and Chairperson Dr. Brigalia Bam from the Independent
Electoral Commission in South Africa.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief excerpts from the FEI
report, with a particular focus on the issue of disenfranchisement,
and a brief excerpt on the same topic from the extensive packet of
background information available on the FEI website, at
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
Fair Election International Pre-Election Report
Election Readiness: It Is Never Too Late for Transparency
Fair Election International (FEI) is a project of Global Exchange,
an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting
social, economic and environmental justice by building
people-to-people ties around the world. For more information about
FEI or to download a free copy of this report, please visit
http://www.fairelection.us. For media inquiries, please contact
Jason Mark at (415) 558.9490 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In recent years, international support for electoral fairness has
increasingly been expressed through election observation
reciprocity and the sharing of democratic innovation.
This spirit of solidarity inspires the Fair Election International
observation of the 2004 General Election in the United States.
This report is the result of an independent, non-governmental
pre-election observation of the U.S. electoral process, conducted
in September 2004 by a 20-person delegation of civic leaders,
parliamentarians, diplomats, lawyers, electoral officials, academic
specialists, journalists and veteran election monitors from 15
countries on all five continents.
The observers have worked for decades to make electoral systems in
their own and many other countries more fair, open and responsive.
The delegation was invited by the U.S. non-governmental
organization, Global Exchange, with the aim of contributing to the
ongoing efforts to increase confidence in the U.S. electoral
Democracy has no single blueprint; it is borne of the unique
history and experience of the many countries where it is nurtured.
Nonetheless, the world's democracies share many of the same
challenges. All democracies grapple with how to ensure that every
vote counts, that voting technology is effective, and that
political contests occur on a level playing field. By recognizing
the similar obstacles that all democracies face, and by sharing the
democratic innovations and advances occurring around the world, the
delegation seeks to bring to light the best practices that may
benefit the U.S. political system.
While the Pre-Election observation investigated a range of
electoral issues, the delegation closely examined three particular
subjects that appear to be feeding controversy and undermining
public confidence in the upcoming American elections:
- The potential for disproportionate disenfranchisement of minority
and poor voters;
- The security of millions of votes recorded on computer voting
- The consequences of corporate and personal wealth in political
The Pre-Election observers arrived in Washington, D.C. on September
13, 2004 meeting with government officials, policy analysts,
advocacy organizations, and academics to get an overview of
electoral issues in the U.S. Delegates then split into five groups
to conduct investigations in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Missouri,
and Ohio. In those states, delegates met with Secretaries of State
and county election officials, talked with community organizations,
observed voter registration drives, and held town hall meetings to
gain as complete a picture of U.S. democracy as possible.
- In Arizona the team focused primarily on the question of money in
politics. Arizona is only one of two states with publicly financed
- Florida was chosen because it was the site of the most widely
publicized irregularities that contributed to the constitutional
crisis of 2000.
- Georgia was selected because it is one of only two states the
other being Maryland that will vote uniformly on paperless Direct
Recording Electronic (DRE) ballots. In 2000 there were also reports
of disenfranchisement of minority voters in Georgia.
- Missouri also experienced serious troubles on Election Day 2000,
as thousands of eligible St. Louis voters were unable to vote due
to being incorrectly placed on inactive voter lists. A Consent
Decree has attempted to remedy those problems.
- Ohio was chosen because it is widely considered one of the most
hotly contested swing states, with a diverse urban and rural
population and allegations of partisan manipulation of voting
procedures. The introduction of a new generation of voting machines
has been largely abandoned due to controversy over their
reliability. During the observation, the delegation heard from many
citizens whose faith in U.S. electoral processes remains shaken by
the events of 2000. The delegation also observed the activities of
a healthy and engaged civil society that is working out flaws in
the system and promoting reforms designed to enhance transparency
Time for Transparency
Many concerned citizens have asked what a report issued two weeks
before the election can do to help electoral fairness. Aside from
discussing recommendations that point to long term reform that
frequently require legislation for their implementation, what can
The answer is clear: It is never too late for transparency and fair
The delegation recommends the following for the immediate-term:
- Elections officials at all levels can open the electoral process
to non-partisan observers from the United States, as well as their
far less numerous overseas counterparts, to oversee all aspects of
the election and tabulation processes. Such scrutiny cannot resolve
all of the concerns raised in this report, but it will go a long
way toward rebuilding the confidence necessary to legitimize the
election in the eyes of reasonable doubters. Further, election
officials can pledge to deal with all Election Day and post
electoral disputes with the utmost evenhandedness, employing the
principle that their decisions should promote the greatest
Key medium and long-term recommendations found in this report
- Eliminate partisan administration of the electoral apparatus and
move toward non-partisan electoral management. In the United
States, most top election administrators are party members and
elected officials, which can engender the perception of a conflict
of interest. This practice is not consistent with international
standards. Moreover, the confidence of the electorate is enhanced when
independent oversight holds sway.
- Modify or replace Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines to
provide all voting equipment with a voter verified, re-countable,
paper record. If such verification is not available, arrangements
for independent auditing should be put in place.
- Restore the franchise to ex-felons; the inclusion of exfelons as
full voting citizens is practiced in most of the United States and
in most democracies around the world. This would require action by
state authorities in Florida and seven other states. We recommend
automatic restoration following release or parole.
- Adopt public campaign financing to help level the political
playing field, avoid perceptions of corruption and raise voter
confidence. Internationally, one of the most effective methods for
regulating campaign finance is to limit expenditures; however
Supreme Court rulings have effectively closed this option in the
United States. Public finance models currently exist in the states
of Arizona and Maine.
The pre-election report that follows contains two major sections:
- A report on election readiness across the five states as well as
recommendations for short and longer-term reform.
- Five state reports including findings and recommendations for
short and longer-term reform.
Based on the experiences of this delegation, a second team of
observers will return to Florida, Missouri and Ohio for Election
Day, November 2, 2004.
1.3 The Franchise
Although practices and restrictions vary, many countries extend the
franchise to legal residents or taxpayers, particularly at the
local level. The franchise in the Unites States is generally
restrictive, limiting citizens' voting as more a privilege than a
Voter Registration and Registration Lists:
In the United States, voter registration is managed at the county
and municipal level, with registration rules varying widely.
Registration problems were responsible for half of the 4.6 million
votes lost in the 2000 election. Most of those voters lost their
franchise due to erroneous voter rolls and/or purging of voters'
names from registration databases. By January 1, 2004, HAVA
required states to implement centralized, nondiscriminatory and
computerized voter registration lists linked with other state
agency databases, specifically the motor vehicle authority data. In
addition, the new HAVA-compliant database must allow local election
officials immediate access to the lists and state assistance with
expeditious data entry. However, 41 states sought and were granted
a statutory waiver until 2006, making it likely that many of the
problems that arose in 2000 will be repeated. Many of the systems
the delegation observed create a series of hurdles for voters, and
put the responsibility for ensuring registration on the voter
rather than the state.
In all but two states (Maine and Vermont), laws have been enacted
that prohibit convicted felons from voting during their
incarceration. A majority of states restore former felons' rights
after they have served their sentence or following release from
parole. However, the delegation was informed by civil society and
prison advocacy groups that ex-felons are often not informed by
authorities that their voting rights should be restored upon
completion of their sentence.
Eight states permanently deny ex-offenders the right to vote. An
estimated 4.7 million people are currently disenfranchised and this
number continues to increase following the trend toward tougher
sentencing in the United States. These laws affect African
Americans at a rate seven times the national average and affect 1.4
million, or 13 percent, of the African American male population. At
current incarceration rates, 40 percent of the next generation of
African American men in the eight states that permanently deny the
ballot to felons may become disenfranchised. Latinos are also
disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement laws
(precise data is difficult to ascertain; the Bureau of Justice
Statistics does not report separate conviction data for this
Impacts on Low-Income and Minority Populations:
Minority and low-income sectors of the population are
disproportionately disenfranchised. The reasons for this are
complicated and hotly debated the facts about voting patterns are
not. By and large, minority groups are less likely to vote. In
municipalities throughout the country, registration information is
updated by mail to the last known address. Statistically,
low-income and minority populations tend to move more often than do
other sectors of society, and are less likely to receive
notification of changes to their voting status or precinct changes.
Minority rights' and voter advocacy groups have found themselves
responsible for much of the voter education within minority
communities. These groups report that cooperation and partnership
in this task with voting officials has not always been forthcoming
or easy. The delegation also heard a range of additional concerns
from representatives of minority groups, from bureaucratic delays
in the processing of voter registration to voter intimidation and
intentional partisan disenfranchisement.
2.3 The Franchise
Recommendation Regarding the Disenfranchisement of Exfelons:
Many countries restrict the voting rights of serious offenders
while they are serving their sentence. The delegation's concerns
center on the permanent disenfranchisement of former felons, a
practice that falls outside of international or even U.S. norms and
is an unreasonable restriction that creates subcategories of
citizenship in the United States. In most states, it is assumed
that ex-offenders have paid their debt to society, and that
rehabilitated, they will lead productive lives in society.
Ex-felons are expected to contribute to society as gainfully
employed citizens, pay taxes and raise families, but their
disenfranchisement gives them no say in how those tax dollars are
spent, who sits on their children's school board, or who represents
their interests in government. The delegation strongly recommends
that those states that permanently disenfranchise felons - Florida,
Virginia, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky, Iowa, Arizona and
Alabama - amend their laws and practices to restore full
citizenship rights to ex-offenders. In addition, in those states
where voting rights of ex-felons can be restored upon release,
authorities should disseminate clear and precise materials in a
variety of media informing ex-felons of their restored rights.
Felon Disfranchisement Policies in the United States and Other
by Laleh Ispahani
["Democracy Denied," a longer background paper on
disenfranchisement, is available at:
United States facts and impacts
Media coverage of the United States' policy of felon
disfranchisement has been widespread in the last two presidential
election years. The coverage usually involves the idiosyncratic
nature of these laws which vary from state to state; their impact
on minority political participation; and speculation as to which
political party would benefit if these voting laws were
liberalized. Absent from the policy debates is an assessment of how
the United States stacks up against other democracies on this
Nearly five million citizens with present or past felony
convictions are disfranchised due to what the Department of Justice
calls "a national crazy-quilt of disqualification [laws] and
restoration procedures." Only two states permit incarcerated felons
to vote, while 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit
incarcerated felons from voting. Thirty-five states also deny the
vote to those on parole, and 31 restrict those on probation as
well. Seven states deny the right to vote to all felons who have
completed their sentences, and seven others disfranchise certain
categories of ex-felons and/or permit application for restoration
of voting rights depending on the offense after a waiting period.
These application procedures are often cumbersome, lengthy, and
inaccessible to many ex-felons.
The impact on minority electoral participation is nothing less than
startling: African American men are disfranchised at a rate seven
times the national average. At current rates of incarceration,
three in ten of the next generation of black men can expect to be
disfranchised at some point in their lives. In the six states that
automatically and indefinitely disfranchise first-time felons, as
many as 40% of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.
And because these states do not distinguish between types of
felonies or length of sentence, an 18-year old convicted in
Virginia of a one-time drug sale who successfully completes a
court-ordered treatment program, and is never rearrested again,
permanently loses voting rights unless a gubernatorial pardon is
United States versus other democracies' policies
But how do we compare with our fellow democracies? The United
States has the dubious distinction of being the sole democracy to
indefinitely bar so many from voting. This proud democracy entered
the 21st century with the world's highest imprisonment rate and,
possibly, its most restrictive disfranchisement laws.
Many non-U.S. democratic nations permit prisoners to vote.
Prisoners may vote in countries including the Czech Republic,
Denmark, France, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Peru,
Poland, Romania, Sweden and Zimbabwe, according to research by the
NGO Penal Reform International. Indeed, German law affirmatively
requires the government to facilitate inmate voting, excluding from
voting only those prisoners convicted of electoral crimes or crimes
such as treason that undermine the "democratic order" and those
whose court-imposed sentence expressly includes disfranchisement.
(Permitting an inmate to vote in New Mexico, by contrast, earns you
a misdemeanor.) Some countries have more tailored bans on prisoner
voting. Austria's ban, for example, affects only those prisoners
sentenced to more than one year of incarceration.
A few non-U.S. democracies do restrict the vote to ex-prisoners but
generally only for short periods of time after the conclusion of
prison terms. For example, Finland and New Zealand prohibit postsentence
voting for a few years but only for those convicted of
buying or selling votes or of corrupt practices. And some countries
condition post-sentence disfranchisement on the seriousness of the
crime or the length of the sentence. Others, including Germany,
only disfranchise for serious, legislatively enumerated offenses
that must be assessed directly by the sentencing judge but in no
case may disfranchisement last more than 5 years.
United States disfranchisement policies and international norms
Though untested, American disfranchisement policies likely
contravene international human rights which guarantee the right to
vote. The right is affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights and codified in Article 25 of the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The United States ratified the
Covenant, accepting its provisions as binding on both federal and
state governments, as the "supreme law of the land". United States
disfranchisement policies similarly likely also violate
international law which outlines basic principles for electoral
democracy including the right of citizens to vote. Article 25 "lies
at the core of democratic government based on the consent of the
people" according to the U.N. Human Rights Committee which reviews
conformity to the ICCPR, and restrictions on the right to vote
should only be based on grounds that are "objective and
reasonable." The Committee, acknowledging the existence of criminal
disfranchisement laws, has stated that "[i]f conviction for an
offence is the basis for suspending the right to vote, the period
of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence and the
sentence," and has consistently disapproved, and tried to limit the
reach, of criminal disfranchisement laws that it has reviewed.
The racially disproportionate impact of the United States'
disfranchisement laws is also inconsistent with the principles of
non-discrimination in the ICCPR and in the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) ratified
by the United States in 1994. Article 25 of the ICCPR specifically
enjoins racial discrimination with regard to electoral rights. CERD
also requires states parties to guarantee, without distinction as
to race, color or national or ethnic origin, "[p]olitical rights,
in particular the right to participate in elections - to vote and
to stand for election -on the basis of universal and equal
AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication
providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with
a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus
Bulletin is edited by William Minter.
AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at email@example.com. Please
write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin,
or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about
reposted material, please contact directly the original source
mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see