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USA/Africa: Fair Elections?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Oct 26, 2004 (041026)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

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

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Fair Election International Pre-Election Report

Election Readiness: It Is Never Too Late for Transparency

October 2004

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 For media inquiries, please contact Jason Mark at (415) 558.9490 or


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 process.

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 machines; and
  • The consequences of corporate and personal wealth in political contests.

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.

State Selection

  • In Arizona the team focused primarily on the question of money in politics. Arizona is only one of two states with publicly financed campaigns.
  • 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 and confidence.

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 be done?

The answer is clear: It is never too late for transparency and fair play.

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 inclusion possible.

Key medium and long-term recommendations found in this report include:

  • 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 right.

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.

Felon Disenfranchisement:

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 population).

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 Democracies

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 issue.

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 obtained.

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 suffrage..."


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.

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