The controversy over requiring voters to provide photo IDs has reached the world stage.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is investigating the issue of American election laws at its gathering on minority rights in Geneva, Switzerland.. This, despite the fact that some members of the council have only in the past several years allowed women to vote, and one member, Saudi Arabia, still bars women from the voting booth completely.
Officials from the NAACP are presenting their case against U.S. voter ID laws, arguing to the international diplomats that the requirements disenfranchise voters and suppress the minority vote.
Eight states have passed voter ID laws in the past year, voter ID proposals are pending in 32 states and the Obama administration has recently moved to block South Carolina and Texas from enacting their voter ID measures.
"This really is a tactic that undercuts the growth of your democracy," said Hillary Shelton, the NAACP's senior vice president for advocacy, about voter photo ID requirements.
In a Fox News interview prior to his trip, Shelton said the message from the NAACP delegation to the Human Rights Council is that the photo ID law "undercuts the integrity of our government, if you allow it to happen. It's trickery, it's a sleight-of-hand. We're seeing it happen here and we don't want it to happen to you, and we are utilizing the U.N. as a tool to make sure that we are able to share that with those countries all over the world."
The United Nations has no legal jurisdiction over the American electoral system, which Shelton acknowledges. Asked whether he thinks that the U.N. should be involved in domestic American laws, he answered, "No, not specifically. The U.N. should certainly be involved in sharing a best practice for the world."
"We're the greatest country on the face of the earth, but we can be better still," he said.
The NAACP had scheduled two American citizens to present their claims at the U.N. panel who, the group says, worry they will be disenfranchised by the requirement to present a photo ID to vote. The civil rights group says one, Kemba Smith Pradia, was convicted of a drug-related offense and is concerned that if she moves back to Virginia from the Midwest, state law will block her voting because of her record, even though she was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton.
A second American, Austin Alex, is a Texas Christian University student. The NAACP says he is worried that he will be barred from voting because he only holds an out-of-state driver's license and a non-government student ID, not a Texas issued photo ID.
But supporters of photo ID requirements argue that states provide such identifications for free, and in some cases, voters can cast provisional or absentee ballots that do not even require a photo ID. The NAACP disputes those claims.
The U.N. Human Rights Council members include communist China and Cuba. In addition, several Arab nations are on the council that have only granted the right to vote to women in recent years, such as Kuwait in 2005 and Qatar in 2003. Women in the Republic of Moldova have had the right to vote for less than 20 years.
Council member Saudi Arabia announced six months ago that women will be granted the right to vote, but that change does not go into effect until 2015.
"The idea that this is a human rights abuse is ridiculous," said Hans von Spakovsky, a voter fraud expert and senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in Washington, D.C.
"The UN allowing this to take place under their roof makes them, unfortunately, complicit in what really is a publicity stunt by the NAACP, and I think it wastes their time, when they should be going after real and sustained human rights abuses like the things going on in horrible places, like North Korea."
Spakovsky, who supports voter photo ID laws, says it is a hypocritical and meaningless waste of time to present a case against American electoral laws at the UN forum.
"I think the leadership of the NAACP is, quite frankly, doing a disservice to American citizens and the democracy that we have here, by going abroad to the Human Rights Council, which is filled with dictatorships and other countries that actually and really abuse human rights."
He called the council's weighing of U.S. laws "an insult to the United States that the NAACP thinks we should be getting advice from those kinds of countries, which are not democracies, on how to administer elections in this country.”
But Shelton argues that the NAACP's presence at the Geneva conference can teach other nations how to improve their electoral systems.
"We can learn a lot from those who haven't gone through as much as we have," he said.
"Everyone has a different struggle, but there's lessons to learn from whoever we come across ... but there's also some things I think we can still help teach the rest of the world."
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