Tag Archive | "elections"

taxation without representation plate on presidential motorcade

Voting Rights and Wrongs

It is Sunday the 9th of March.  Imagine if today, voting day for Congress in Colombia, Bogotanos could not go to the polls because they live in the Districto Capital (nation´s capital district) and not in a departmento (state); would this violate human rights law?  Imagine this same day if afro descendants, indigenous, women or those with modest incomes that don´t own property could not vote; would that violate human rights law?

former mayor of bogota

Former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa after casting his vote (Guillermo Legaria/AFP)

Today, almost everyone would answer of course, it would violate human rights law and many would think that this just does not happen anymore.  But oddly, these types of violations of political rights are not a thing of the past.  Often, national courts go to great lengths to avoid having to strike down mechanisms and procedures that from an outside observer seem to be a clear violation of the right to vote. Often, those working in human rights organizations are puzzled by how some politicians and judges refuse to see what is a plain and egregious violation and how society has come to grow accustom to a violation.

Human Rights law is quite clear.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (a treaty to which 167 nations are state parties including all countries of North and South America) in Article 25 states:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 (without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status) and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;

(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”

My own country, the United States, actually excludes people who live in Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia) from voting for members of the U.S. Congress. Residents of Washington, D.C., the nation´s capital, who are citizens of the United States, have no voting representatives in the Senate or in the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia needs assistance from the international community, including Colombia, to fix this clear human rights violation, as here in Bogota, D.C., citizens are busy voting for their Congressional representatives.

Imagine how residents of Bogota, Districto Capital would feel today if everyone else in Columbia was voting for Congress, but they could not?

In fact, Mexico and Brazil, which both borrowed from the U.S. federal system and created capital districts where their citizens residing in the D.C. could not vote in Congressional elections, have both recognized the clear violation and changed the law.

It is hard to understand how this human rights problem persists in the U.S., especially when compared with rhetoric from that country on the importance of voting and how sacred this right is and how important it is to protect the voting rights of the people.

Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who did a great deal to address race-based problems in voting in the US, stated: “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

Over the years there have been a number of legal challenges to this restriction of voting rights.  U.S. courts have often decided that exclusion of individuals for race, economic status or gender violated their rights.  As Justice Black said in Wesberry v. Sanders: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live.”

It is important to compare this with the cautious language and decisions related to the right to vote of U.S. citizens living in Washington, D.C.

But so far the close to 5 million U.S. citizens that do not live in a state continue to be denied the right to vote and the courts have always prioritized a mechanism found in the  constitution over the rights of the citizens who do not live in a state.

If a U.S. citizen moves from any state to Washington, D.C., or to another non-state U.S. entity (Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and America Samoa), she will find herself denied the right to vote in federal elections.  If that person moves from that state to Riyadh, or Reykjavik, or Bogota though, she would still able to vote absentee as a state resident. This is an injustice that needs to be fixed.

taxation without representation plate on presidential motorcade

Members of DC Vote demonstrate to get the “Taxation Without Representation” plate on the presidential motorcade, which the administration did in January 2013 (flickr/ekelly80)

In 1998, two complaints (the Adams and Alexander cases) were filed, each alleging, inter alia, that inhabitants of the District of Columbia are being unconstitutionally deprived of their right to vote for representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  They note that the citizens of the District pay federal taxes and defend the United States in times of war, yet are denied any vote in the Congress that levies those taxes and declares those wars. This, they continue, contravenes a central tenet of our nation’s ideals: that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Declaration of Independent, para. 2.

In its original form, the U.S. Constitution provided: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.” U.S. Const. art. I, § 3.

The Seventeenth Amendment provides: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”

Basically, if you do not live in a state, you have no right to vote in U.S. federal elections. Odd, as human rights law is clear that voting attaches to citizenship.  For years courts have tried to avoid the rights of the citizens and tried to contort their logic to not see how the right of a citizen is violated when they cannot vote for those that make decisions that impact them.

In Ballentine v. United States, Ballentine was born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 22, 1936. After working for a number of years as a deputy United States Marshal in the continental United States, Mr. Ballentine was transferred in 1973 to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he has remained ever since. Mr. Ballentine brought an action on July 30, 1999, claiming that he has been denied his constitutional right to vote in presidential elections, and his right to be represented in Congress by a regular voting member, because of his status as a United States citizen residing in an unincorporated territory of the United States.

In this case, like so many others, it was decided that “the franchise for choosing electors is confined to ‘states’ cannot be ‘unconstitutional’ because it is what the Constitution itself provides.”  Odd, as the U.S. Constitution also provided for the exclusion of slaves and indigenous peoples from voting.  Rights should trump mechanical sections of the Constitution.

So how did rights override parts of the Constitution but not other parts?  Courts in the U.S. have been unwilling to find the Constitution unconstitutional, so they have done the changes in terms of voting rights within the framework of the Constitution, not touching the mechanism for voting, which is just with the states.

Countries that have integrated human rights law into their constitution have an easier time holding mechanisms within a constitution unconstitutional as they violate a developing notion of rights.  The U.S. has only two choices to bring their current practice into conformity with their human rights treaty obligation.  One, the Courts could read the 9th Amendment , which states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,”  to conform to current thinking of rights and the right to vote as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The other would be for the U.S. to pass an amendment to the Constitution to create one non-state voting district for all those who are U.S. citizens, but do not have the right to vote in Congressional and Presidential elections.

Importantly, one poll shows approximately 80% of adult Americans are not aware that DC residents pay federal taxes and have no voting representation in the House or Senate. But once aware of this aberration, they overwhelmingly support federal voting rights for the residents of the District of Columbia.

The difficulty with this is that process defined by the Constitution to pass an amendment requires States to pass an amendment.  As this will dilute the voting power of States, there are forces of the status quo that impede this change.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) provides that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Although these amendments seem to indicate that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that this right only applies to residents of one of the fifty states.

There have been six countries that modeled their governments so closely after America’s that they, too, created the “D.C. voting problem” in their countries, including Brazil and Mexico. All six rectified the problem, in recognition of the need for all citizens to vote.

For those that don´t think the U.S. is violating its human rights obligations by excluding about 5 million citizens from voting in Congressional elections, they should come to Bogota and try to convince the people here that those living in Bogota, D.C., should not have the right to vote unless they moved to a departmento or state.  People would find the argument ridiculous.  Discriminating against citizens based on place or birth or residence can no longer be sustained in the U.S.  Allowing all citizens to vote is long past due.


Todd Howland is the Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia and a graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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Maduro has embraced the same anti-American sentiments as Chavez, leaving many wondering what the new Socialist president will do to help or further hinder United States-Venezuela relations. (Google)

Venezuelan Elections: What’s Next?


Maduro has embraced the same anti-American sentiments as Chavez, leaving many wondering what the new Socialist president will do to help or further hinder United States-Venezuela relations. (Google)

Maduro has embraced the same anti-American sentiments as Chavez, leaving many wondering what the new Socialist president will do to help or further hinder United States-Venezuela relations. (Google)

President Hugo Chavez’s work to nationalize Venezuela’s petroleum market and anti-American sentiments lead to strained relations between the United States and Venezuela from Chavez’s election in 1999 until his death this past March.  Not surprisingly, the United States government and private petroleum industries watched carefully as Venezuelans hit the polls to vote for Chavez’s successor.  As many international actors predicted, but maybe hoped would not be the case, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, won the presidential election by two percentage points. Maduro has embraced the same anti-American sentiments as Chavez, leaving many wondering what the new Socialist president will do to help or further hinder United States-Venezuela relations. 

Between Maduro’s belief that the United States conspires against his Socialist agenda and the U.S. State Department’s threat not to recognize Maduro as president until Venezuelan officials complete a vote recount, United States-Venezuela relations do not appear on to be on the mend.  U.S. opinion regarding the recount is not surprising.  However, the United States’ input did not help to soothe Maduro’s suspicions that the United States is working with the opposition to take away his presidency.

Despite the mutual disdain, Maduro has said that he wants to work towards restoring Untied States-Venezuela relations “in terms of equality and respect.”  Critics do not believe that the United States will give Maduro the equality and respect he is demanding.  However, it is in the best interest of both countries to mend the relations between them. 

Venezuela is slipping into an environment of inflation and high crime, something that the citizens of Venezuela have chosen to ignore because of Chavez’s heroic demeanor.  Now that the heroic figure is gone, there is some concern that Maduro will not be able to distract the public’s attention from the major issues the country is facing.  Therefore, it will be necessary for Maduro to address these issues and find a way to help boost the economy.  Maduro will need to focus on rebuilding its petroleum industry.  Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, yet oil exports have decreased significantly and there has been a significant increase in Venezuelan import of fuel products from the United States over the past decade.

The United States relies on the import of foreign oil that comes mostly from Saudi Arabia.  This lengthy transit time leads to an increase in oil prices, an issue of extreme important to the citizens of the United States.  United States oil import needs can easily be filled with by Venezuela’s oil reserves – the largest in the world – in a transit time of only four days.  This is a significant decrease in transit time and could bring down the price passed onto the consumer.

Restoring the relationship between the United States and Venezuela would benefit both countries’ economies.  It would provide the United States with an energy partner whose border is much closer than that of the Middle East decreasing the price of oil and it would increase Venezuelan petroleum exports.  Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “With stronger economic ties comes political stabilization.” Stabilizing the Venezuelan political atmosphere would promote foreign investment in the petroleum industry further improving the economy.

 Alicia Guber is a 1L at the University of Denver and incoming Alumni Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

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Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been openly battling cancer since June 2011. (BBC)

Critical Analysis: South America’s Most Controversial President has More Surgery as the Future of Venezuelan Politics Blurs

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been openly battling cancer since June 2011. (BBC)

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been openly battling cancer since June 2011. (BBC)

As of December 18th, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez remains in stable condition as he continues to undergo cancer treatment in Cuba. The Venezuelan government reported that Chavez, 58, had recently suffered a respiratory infection but is now resting.

Chavez remains in Cuba and is recovering from another surgery to fight cancer that is believed to be in his pelvis. This is Chavez’s fourth operation since last year. Chavez first announced he had cancer in June of 2011. Chavez underwent a surgery for a pelvic abscess and had a baseball-sized tumor removed. Last February, he underwent another surgery when a tumor reappeared in the same area. He has also undergone months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Chavez has kept secret many details of his illness, including the exact location and type of the tumors and cancer.

Due to the aggressive nature of his cancer, Chavez has named Nicolás Maduro as his successor. In the days before this most recent procedure, Chavez had announced that he needed to have another surgery because tests showed that malignant cells had reappeared in the same area of his pelvic region where tumors were previously removed. Chavez cautioned the Venezuelan people beforehand that the surgery would present risks.

Shortly after the fourth surgery took place, Vice President Maduro spoke on Venezuelan television and reassured the citizens that the procedure had been a success. Maduro also assured the public that Chavez’s vision for Venezuelan would live on, even as their leader remained incapacitated by cancer.

The precarious state of Chavez’s health has sparked quite a bit of debate over what will happen to the face of the Venezuelan government if the President dies shortly into his fourth term. The Venezuelan constitution states that, should the president leave office in the first four years of his term, an election must be held within 30 days. Chavez has encouraged Venezuelans to vote for Vice President Maduro in the new election should his health fail. However, many of Chavez’s supporters distrust Maduro and fear the President’s demise because no one else would be capable of replacing Chavez. As debate stirs over the future of Venezuelan politics, Venezuela’s political divide deepens.

Chavez defeated his political opponent, Henrique Capriles, and was re-elected as the country’s president for his fourth term this October. Despite looming health concerns, his inauguration is scheduled for January 10, 2013.

Gaby Corica is a 3L at DU law, Staff Editor for the Denver Journal for International Law and Policy, and General Editor for The View From Above. 



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Farouk Sultan, head of the Supreme Presidential Election Committee

News Post: 10 of the 23 Candidates Disqualified from Egyptian Presidential Election

The presidential election, the final stage in Egypt’s turbulent transition, will begin May 23. With elections just around the corner, Egypt’s Higher Presidential Election Commission (HPEC) shocked many on Saturday by announcing that it had disqualified 10 of the 23 candidates running for Office.

Farouk Sultan, head of the Supreme Presidential Election Committee

On Tuesday, the committee overseeing the Egyptian presidential election upheld the HPEC’s decision, finding that the hopeful candidates offered no new evidence to overturn the decision. As Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna reported from Cairo, “On examining the appeals of each of these candidates, the commission has announced that there is no reason to alter the initial decision.” Hanna also went on to explain that the “presidential election commission is the final arbiter in this particular case.” In short, the candidates cannot go to court over this decision, and the campaigns for these ten candidates are over.

The candidates were disqualified for a variety of proffered reasons, as is evident in evaluating the disqualifications applied to the three candidates who many considered to be among the top contenders: ex-spy chief Omar Suleiman, Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, and ultraconservative Salafist, Hazem Abu Ismail. Mr. Suleiman was disqualified because he fell short of the required number of public endorsements. In contrast, Mr. al-Shater was disqualified for a previous conviction. Mr. Abu Ismail was meanwhile disqualified because his late mother held US citizenship, a fact he vigorously denied. Under a new Egyptian law passed after the uprising, candidates, their parents and spouses, must hold only Egyptian citizenship.

The disqualifications of these candidates will likely fuel speculation over the independence of the HPEC. Farouk Sultan, the head of the commission, is a former army officer and judge in the military court system. Some speculate that he and his fellow judges on the HPEC “are sympathizers with the old regime” and thus impartial decision makers. The Muslim Brotherhood also reported that other judges on the HPEC are holdovers from the Mubarak era and were appointed to the panel by the country’s military rulers.

With the candidate pool vastly reduced, the new top contenders are likely former foreign minister Amr Moussa, moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh and the Brotherhood’s backup candidate, Mohammed Mursi. However, Jon Leyne, an analyst for the BBC News, stated that this decision completely reshapes the prospects for the presidential election. Moreover, Leyne also explained that the Muslim Brotherhood must decide whether to endorse their back-up candidate, Mr. Mursi. A final list of candidates will be published on April 26, when the election campaign officially kicks off. 

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law