Monday, September 20, 2010

Voting rights for prisoners is about the character of the country, not the character of the criminals

I suspect this will be a popular view in very few quarters, but I have to say I'm delighted to hear the reports that the UK government is finally prepared to comply with the European ruling that the blanket ban on voting rights for convicted prisoners must be lifted.  Despite the emotive response this issue always provokes, it isn't actually primarily about the character of those affected, or whether they 'deserve' the right to vote - indeed, once you start thinking of the vote in terms of a privilege that has to be earned (or at the very least can be easily forfeited) you've already undermined the fundamental principle of universal suffrage.  We need look no further than the US to see where that particular slippery slope can lead, with no fewer than five million adults now denied the right to vote - many of whom are not even currently incarcerated.  Needless to say, a hugely disproportionate number of them are from ethnic minorities.  And what else do they have in common?  Well, on the whole, they probably wouldn't be voting for Sarah Palin as President, given the opportunity...

In its US guise, the ban on voting rights for felons is nothing short of selective disenfranchisement (and gerrymandering) on a mass scale, cleverly dressed up as law enforcement.  With the UK prison population already at a historic high, there can hardly be a better moment to take decisive action to ensure we never follow that terrible example.


  1. Well it's certainly acceptable, if not popular in this quarter, for all the reasons you mention.

    If we start by saying that prisoners (and in the US, if I read you right, ex-prisoners) cannot vote, then what is the next step?

    Drink drivers, people who have been fined for shoplifting, or jaywalking, or speeding; adulterers, or people who stick their tongue out at Prince Charles?

    Or maybe it will be for people who want to break up the UK?

    Prisoners have to live in the country too. Most will be discharged before there is another election and will have to live with the choice we make. I can't see any reason other than emotional why they shouldn't have the right to a vote.

    The Daily Mail and its pursed lipped readers won't care for it much I suspect!

  2. Agreed, Tris, and there's also the positive argument that participation in elections can help (admittedly in a very small way) with rehabilitation - ie. civic engagement can never be a bad thing.

  3. It might James. Perhaps a talk on voting (how to do it), parliament(s), politics, civic responsibility would go well. Maybe even an explanation of what the parties' main policies were (not that they ever stick to them) given that the reading age of a large proprtion of the prison polulation is much lower than average and a fair proportion of prisoners are functionally illiterate.

    It need not be expensive..someone from the local college, volunteers maybe. I'd go and do it.

  4. Nice post.
    It's frankly a travesty that we have citizens having reached majority, barred from voting. The sooner it's fixed, the better.
    I think you're also correct, that it might assist in rehabilitation for some. A captive audience always gets some people influenced, there are always people who discover arts or education for the first time in prison - why not civic engagement. It doesn't have to positively affect many inmates, but for each individual so affected the effect may be profoundly transformative. There are no negative consequences, so this is surely what we all ought to want.