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by Jamey Keaten
GENEVA (AP) — The NAACP took to the U.N. its effort to ensure that all former convicted felons in the United States can vote.
A delegation from the NAACP held meetings Sept. 25 at the United Nations' Geneva office in part to press the U.N. Human Rights Council to send its rapporteur on racism to the U.S. to look into alleged racially discriminatory election laws so the council can recommend ways for U.S. authorities to restore all citizens' voting rights — including people previously incarcerated.
The diplomatic push comes against the backdrop of a related — and vigorous — debate about requirements in some states for would-be voters to provide proper identification before they can cast ballots.
The NAACP says nearly 6 million U.S. citizens are barred from voting because of previous felony convictions. According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that seeks policies to make it easier for felons to vote, the United States has the world's largest prison population — 2.2 million — and more than 60 percent of inmates are ethnic or racial minorities.
In a statement, the NAACP said it sent a first delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March "in the face of a mounting attack on voting rights in the United States." This week's visit followed up on that trip.
Hilary Shelton, a NAACP vice president, said the issue of voting rights could affect the outcome of the election between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"The reality is that you're seeing two candidates who are going back and forth with slim leads between each other," he told The Associated Press in a vast conference hall. "A voting bloc like those who are formerly incarcerated — like racial and ethnic minorities — can make a tremendous difference."
According to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, most states and the District of Columbia automatically restore the right to vote to felons once their sentences are finished. Five states either require a waiting period or require ex-detainees to apply to recover their voting rights.
Four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — bar former felons from voting for life unless they receive pardons from the governor, said the NCSL. Maine and Vermont don't strip voting rights from felons at all.
"Our overall end goal is that there is really no good reason to strip the vote away from anyone," the NAACP's Shelton said. "We have some shining examples of states in the United States that don't take your vote away at all when you're in prison."
(Suzanne Gamboa contributed reporting from Washington.)
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