Everyone is rightfully talking about voting in the upcoming general election. Rick Edward’s is on a crusade to get young people to vote, Sol Campbell’s ‘whiting-up’ in a bid to encourage BME voters, and Harriett Harman is backing a garishly coloured battle-bus to improve the turnout of women at the ballot box. Yet there’s one group of people who won’t be voting in a few weeks’ time that no-one’s talking about: prisoners.
Currently, convicted prisoners are barred from voting in any election, regardless of severity of crime, duration of sentence or category of prison. This blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners was ruled illegal in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, under the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to vote in a free and fair election.
Despite current Government policy being in breach of international law, the blanket-ban on prisoners voting is hugely popular: in February 2012, MPs voted by a majority of 212 on a non-binding motion that the current ban should be maintained. These MPs are, I believe, mistaken.
A blanket ban on prisoners’ voting rights harms our standing in the world. By not adhering to international law, Britain gives succour to others who would violate human rights when it suits their domestic interests. How can Britain lecture other members of the Council of Europe, (who include among them Russia, Belarus and Turkey) on the need to honour the European Convention on Human Rights, so long as it keeps in place an illegal hangover from the Victorian era on its statute books?
It’s for this reason – not because the European Court can really enforce its judgement – that the Government published a draft bill in November 2012, exploring a range of options for giving some prisoners the vote. Yet instead of moving on any options to dismantle the automatic ban, the Government played a game of political procrastination and kept the current policy. The result is that, shamefully, some people won’t be voting in May, despite having a legal right to do so.
However, it’s not just the illegal blanket ban that I believe is wrong – all prisoners should have the vote. The right to vote in a free and fair election should be an absolute right, which no Government can take away for any reason whatsoever. The right to vote for all adults is far too precious to allow the State to attach conditions to. Even if you don’t agree that the right to vote is an absolute right, consider this: what purpose does disenfranchisement serve?
The public is made no safer by a prisoner’s loss of vote, crime no less likely to happen. Some may argue that loss of the vote is a just punishment for the horrific acts that some prisoners are guilty of – it’s no less than they deserve. But the slogan of “It’s no less than they deserve” is not a rational ground on which to base our public policy. After all, there are many things we may feel some prisoners deserve which we do not carry out – torture for example.
Moreover, we should also consider the purpose of our prison system. To be sure, public protection and punishment are vitally important. But we should remember that the prisoners of today are the neighbours of tomorrow. It makes sense then that the primary focus of the penal system should be to encourage re-integration into society.
Giving prisoners the vote would by no means be a silver bullet of character reformation, but it would be a valuable first step. By ostracising prisoners from our democracy, we undermine their rehabilitation into responsible citizens – and we do so to the detriment of us all.