Press Release

IACHR Welcomes the Restoration of Voting Rights for Former Felons in the United States

June 14, 2016

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) welcomes recent legislation in Virginia which allows felons who have completed the terms of their incarceration and any period of supervised release, parole or probation for any felony convictions, to register to vote.

Based on information available to the public, on April 22, 2016, the governor Terry McAuliffe of the State of Virginia issued an Executive Order that instantly restored several civil rights, among them, the right to vote for felons who have served their sentences. The new provision follows the steps of a process that has restored rights for non-violent felons in Virginia during the past year by exercising executive power to approve individual rights restoration. In addition, the state government will issue orders restoring rights to former felons every month.

The order represents a significant advance for voting rights in favor of an estimated 206,000 American citizens, especially African-American residents of Virginia. In this state, according to public information, one in four African Americans had been permanently banned from voting. In this regard, the IACHR has underscored that the right to vote is an essential element of democracy. Specifically, Article XX of the American Declaration stablishes the right to participate in popular elections as a fundamental right for every citizen who is of lawful capacity. Although this provision does not specifically pose restrictions on the right to vote, the IACHR has indicated in numerous occasions that valid restrictions on this right, must be objective, reasonable and proportional. Additionally, in accordance with international law standards, when conviction for an offence is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence and the sentence. In that regard, the Commission recommends the adoption of appropriate measures in other states to ensure the restoration of voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been release on parole.

Furthermore, the Commission highlights that the Executive Order issued in April of 2016 reverses more than one century of felony disenfranchisement, a racially discriminatory practice that deprived citizens from fully participation in the democratic process. Based on information received by the IACHR, the prohibition of former felons from voting had historically a disproportionate negative impact on African American voters. In this regard, the Commission reiterates that the right to equality before the law should be guaranteed formally and substantially. When norms, actions or policies cause a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, even when their formulation is or appears to be neutral, States should take appropriate measures in order to reverse de iure or de facto discriminatory situations.

A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 077/16