Can we really defend refusing prisoners the right to vo...

Can we really defend refusing prisoners the right to vote?

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Prison cell bars

In a ruling from 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it was unlawful for the UK to impose a blanket ban on prisoners to vote in general elections. To many in the UK, this old practice is an important part of what they consider the punishment of imprisonment; the idea being that imprisonment is a temporary removal from society. The prisoner has broken the law and is therefore considered as apart from society. Historically, this was known as civiliter mortuus, civil death, and included making the felon completely outlawed; often even murdering a felon was not a crime. This tradition has carried on in several countries in denying felons the right to vote, most notably in the UK and the US. Most other democratic countries have full felon enfranchisement allowing all convicted criminals the vote, including Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The UK government has repeatedly refused to comply with the ECHR ruling with the Prime Minister David Cameron notably calling the idea of allowing prisoners the vote “sickening”.

The Supreme Court also rejected a case brought against the UK government on the back of the ECHR ruling by Chester and McGeoch saying that it was not necessary for the court to uphold the appeal as the ECHR had already ruled the blanket ban illegal and noting that parliament is currently reviewing the matter. Lady Hale pointed out that public opinion is currently against giving prisoners the right to vote. The present coalition government has certainly made its stance quite clear; it has no intention of enfranchising prisoners of any kind and will kick the matter into the long grass. It is unlikely that any Labour government would act differently but the Attorney General Dominic Grieve has stated that this lack of compliance with the ECHR ruling could cause anarchy and cost the UK government millions.

The issue goes to the heart of two fundamental aspects of our modern democracy. On the one hand, and in relation to the ECHR ruling, is the issue of parliamentary sovereignty and our relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights. On the other hand is the way we treat those who have broken the law. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the government currently, de facto, has chosen to deal with this matter by itself breaking if not the law then at least refusing to comply with a court. The issue of parliamentary sovereignty is a matter for another post. But the issue of felon disenfranchisement is an interesting one. Voting is a civil right, as opposed to a human right, and is granted to citizens of a state, admittedly sometimes extended as in the case of Irish and Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK being allowed to vote in general elections. What, it could be argued here, applies are rights and obligations. As citizens, we are obliged to do certain things like pay taxes and uphold the law. If we fail to do so, we are punished, which of course exactly is what has happened to someone in prison.

It could certainly be argued that if we have failed to uphold our side of the bargain, then we have no right to claim our rights. On the other hand, a person taken to court for failing to pay his or her council tax does not lose his or her right to bin collections or street lights.

Certainly, doing so would be impractical but would it not also be rather demeaning for officialdom to engage in some sort of tit-for-tat game? But then again, is that not exactly what it does on prisoner voting?

Leaving aside the fact that the ECHR has ruled this blanket ban illegal, the fact that the Canadian Supreme Court found that the Canadian ban was illegal and that Ireland has granted its prisoners the right to vote on the back of the ECHR ruling against the UK, it is hard to see any real argument as to why prisoners are not allowed to vote. Somehow, we have considered it moral and decent to allow prisoners all other civil rights but we feel that this specific right, the act of voting, cannot be extended to felons even though there is rarely any link between their crime and the political system itself. From a populist point-of-view, the attitude of the Supreme Court and that of the government makes sense but from a moral, philosophical and legal point-of-view, it makes no sense at all.


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