Should Prisoners have the Right to Vote?

The aftermath of the 2015 General Election seems to have left a debris of discontent surrounding the British voting system. We have seen calls for reform and accusations that First Past the Post voting fails to fairly and accurately represent British voters. However, amidst this media mayhem, arguably, one of the most unjust aspects of the voting system in Britain has been overlooked. Prisoners in Britain are not merely underrepresented – their opinion is not represented at all. Prisoners still do not have the vote.  

In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights established that, under the European Convention of Human Rights, which entitles a free election, Britain was obliged to change its laws on prisoners’ voting rights. For the last ten years, British Governments seem to have been playing a kind of political hot potato: avoiding the issue just long enough to throw it into the hands of the following party. No one wants to risk scolding their public face by passing this controversial law.

Whilst, on the surface, this appears to be just another instance of political game playing, denying people their right to vote is actually illegal. Just as convicted felons took the law into their own hands in committing a criminal act, the government are essentially doing the very same thing, in violating human rights legislation. As such, based on technicalities, the question of whether prisoners should be allowed the vote, is undeniably – yes.

The Greens were the only party to include prisoner’s voting rights in their 2015 manifesto

However, the problem of prisoners’ voting rights highlights deeper concerns about British society. Government after government has dodged and side-lined an issue that is fundamentally concerned with democracy and basic human rights. In fact, the Greens were the only party to include prisoners’ voting rights in their 2015 manifesto.

The argument that a serial killer, who will most likely spend a life in prison should not have the right to cast a vote, is perhaps more difficult to contest. But we have to look at the bigger picture. The majority of inmates are serving much shorter sentences for significantly less severe crimes. Therefore, following their sentence, these people must resume their place in a society that they had no hand in shaping.

“You don’t lose your place in civil society just because you’re in prison”

John Hirst, a convicted killer who protests for prisoner’s voting rights makes the point that, “you don’t lose your place in civil society just because you’re in prison”, the right to vote has nothing to do with “the actual punishment”.

In taking away the vote, we take away prisoners’ right to express their opinion, to have their views acknowledged; we are asking them not to care. Telling them not to bother with politics, current affairs and the world around them. To discourage thought and promote disengagement with society, can only be counterproductive. We should instead be trying to evoke inclusivity in those who probably feel most alienated and removed. Because, if prisoners are not even allowed to vote, then they have no incentive to care.

Surely punishment is futile if it doesn’t solve the root problem

A report published in 2013 by the Ministry of Justice showed that 60% of prisoners serving short term sentences would re-offend within the first year of release. Surely punishment is futile if it doesn’t solve the root problem. If we included these people in society; showing them that although they must face consequences for violating the law, they are still valued citizens, we might then take a step towards breaking this hopeless cycle of re-offending. Because currently, while we try to educate and reform offenders, we simultaneously extricate and degrade them by denying them the vote.

Giving prisoners’ the vote that they are legally entitled to really is a vital facet of reform and essential in the pursuit of true democracy in Britain.

Maddie Waktare

Image: miss_millions via Flickr

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One Comment
  • George Maier
    11 September 2015 at 00:20
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    I think this is a fantastic article, but it misses out one important argument for prisoners having the right to vote. Having the right to vote as a prisoner helps to challenge authoritarian and ideologically driven governments who persecute individuals on grounds of discrimination. There was for instance a time not very long ago when homosexuality was illegal in this country, and as such a large amount of openly gay individuals were sent to prison. Without the vote, such oppressed individuals would have less political persuasion.

    Giving prisoners the vote is important because it’s the elected government who make the laws and decide what is and isn’t illegal and what sort of people should and shouldn’t be in prison. Prisoner votes are a safety net against governments abusing their power with the potential to undemocratically incarcerate people.

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