Prisoner voting

55720At this morning’s meeting of the Joint Committee on the Draft Voter Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, we took evidence from Jack Straw and David Davis.  Both have led the campaign in the Commons to maintain a blanket ban on prisoners being allowed to vote.  You can watch the sesssion here.   As may be apparent, I was not that convinced by the line of argument.  It was claimed that those who break the law should not be allowed to vote for those who make the law.  I pointed out that not everyone who breaks the law is sent to prison.  This point was conceded, but what flows from it is that the principle being enunciated no longer applies.   It was asserted that it then becomes the seriousness of the offence, signified by imprisonment, but then one simply gets into an arbitrary decision as to the cut-off point, a decision that derives from no absolute principle.  Why should the cut-off point be when one is sent to prison rather than, say, someone sentenced to a particular term of imprisonment?

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Prisoner voting

  1. Final test to see if my comments here are at an end . . .
    I seem to have lost the capacity to post comments from my usual address.
    I will see if that is true of this one as well and then I will quit at least for a while regardless. But I cannot test it without a posted comment.

    My original comment was in the vein that those in custody might be under duress. Thus for them an additional reason to ban voting might exist.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    Re your last sentence, do you have in mind those found guilty and then sentenced to time served, or am I missing your point?

  3. JH says:

    What struck me at the time, and again here, is that if that decision derives from no absolute principle then is the same true as to whether someone is sent to prison or not? The denial of liberty strikes me as a more fundamental right than the ability to vote and if there is reason to justifiably deprive someone of the former then the latter following suit is a small matter (although that point of view ignores any benefit regarding rehabilitation). Indeed Jack Straw and David Davis seemed more concerned by the constitutional point of the ECtHR (or the majority) usurping power in a quasi-political move rather than the actual content.

  4. Lady Tizzy,
    I suppose I must follow this through. My original comment is self explanatory enough to answer your question but I did not keep a copy of it. The gist is this:
    In the USA mostly and in general, and in several other societies, felons are deprived of the right to vote and that has the effect of depriving those incarcerated for long periods of time of the right to vote in terms of mass numbers. Where such felony disenfranchisement occurs therefore in practice one does not really worry about other effects of the question.of imprisonment per se. I do not really know the British law but In such a case as prison being the standard one leaves behind the model whereby the disenfranchisement of the felon is based almost exclusively on punishment and theories of disqualification. Thus if one the standard is not felony and one deprives all inmate of the vote while in jails for a day or so this only creates societal level issues if police arrest crowds at election. But let us say a society loses the stomach to enforce a ban on felons voting or correctly decides that there are many prisoners who are simply civic paragons then the personal condemnation may disappear but not all the reasons for removing the vote while they are confined. One could still wish them not to vote because such persons would be subject to duress either by the governors of the prisons or by criminal gangs within the prisons. In either case these would be able to become blocks of voter units not intended to be enfranchised by electoral law in general

    Prisoners as a class would virtually never include those just sentenced to time served. By definition they would not be prisoners whatever their juridic character. SO I fail to see the relevance of them to the question. In our system or others where felonies are the base the former prisoners you mention would likely remain disenfranchised. .

    The issue of prisoner duress is a very rich and well developed one in the law. But it is also one which is continually challenged and developing in areas as diverse as medical care, labor law, sexual consent and privacy rights. Separating out the quality of felons it is tricky in fact to bestow any right on a prisoner — not so a former prisoner.

    • ladytizzy says:

      Frank, so sorry to have caused confusion.

      WordPress is having one of its senior moments again. After logging in, I am unable to post a comment (goes to a WordPress ‘apology page’), but works normally with a new tab/window.

      Your first comment did not appear here before I published mine (hence the confusion) which is normally associated with comments with more than one link, and must be cleared for publishing by the blog’s moderators. Clearly not the case here!

  5. Rich says:

    A serious discussion would start with the question why prisoners should be deprived of the right to vote. One answer, and I would welcome others, is that some behaviour is so inconsistent with what is expected by members of a society that certain forms of participation in society should be withheld, voting being one of those.

    There is, as pointed out, a laziness in linking disenfranchisement to imprisonment. Why should we assume that all offenses resulting in imprisonment deserve disenfranchisement? I think most people would agree that sexual abuse, murder, and other crimes involving serious bodily harm should qualify. Serious fraud, fraud against the state, fraud against vulnerable people, and perverting the course of justice should also be included. There may be quite a bit of argument about drink driving and theft. But the current ban also seems to apply to possession of drugs like cannabis, which seems disproportionate.

    In any event, I think it would make more sense to for Parliament to think about the kinds of offences it deems so antisocial that disenfranchisement is warranted rather than arbitrary time frames such as the 1-, 2-, and 4-year thresholds put forward by the government in its draft legislation. Such a system might work even better if judges were given the power not to impose the sanction if doing so would be unjust in the circumstances.

  6. maude elwes says:

    To ban voting because an individual is incarcerated is perverse. Those who serve their sentence with a tag, are they banned from the polling station should they wish to attend? Those incarcerated on political grounds, well there is a dilemma they may vote for an outsider after all. The whole idea is archaic. If the point of prison is the rehabilitate and bring people, hopefully, back to accepting community spirit, having a voice in the running of their society would surely be encouragement, as it is theirs as well as ours. Voting surely is a way to bring about a sense of unity rather than alienation.

    It works on the psyche. It is not something that will be consciously realised. It is slow to take hold, but, eventually it comes full circle. They may then feel part of society rather than eternal outcasts.

    And, as for Straw being consulted on prison policy, surely, he of all people should be one of those inmates. War on a lie, colluding in torture, selling his soul for ambition. He is a sad individual. And one would have thought compassion may be something he had come to embrace after such failure of principle himself.

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