Prisoners Should Be Allowed To Vote Because…. in a democracy everybody counts

mark2013By: Mark Leech

It has been almost eight years since David Cameron said it made him “physically ill” to be forced to give prisoners the vote –  well today he may be reaching for his sick bag.

Media reports state that Justice Secretary David Lidington has circulated to his Cabinet colleagues his plan to allow those sentenced for less than one year, in Cat D conditions and ROTL cleared, to vote in Elections while on day release; let’s be honest, he could not have restricted it much further.

Lidington’s decision comes after a 12-year battle between the British Government and the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2005 that a blanket ban on prisoner voting is unlawful.

My view then was that the ECHR was right, and it has not changed since.

“Are you suggesting Mark that the likes of Ian Huntley should be given the vote?” asked one interviewer recently, appalled at my belief that the vast majority of serving prisoners should be allowed to vote.

“Rapists and paedophiles should really be able to vote then should they?” asked another, while a third laughed at my suggestion that in all honesty the public were actually more interested in why prisoners shouldn’t vote, than prisoners were as to why they should be able to do so; but it is true nonetheless.

And let’s not beat about the bush, let me come straight to the point.

Yes ‘the likes of’ Ian Huntley should be allowed to vote – and for the record, so too should the likes of jailed paedophiles, rapists, murders, robbers, drug addicts, thieves, shoplifters, mental health offenders, and practically everyone else.

Why? That’s easy.

For the very simple reason that we live in a democracy and the one thing that marks out a democracy, from a dictatorship, is that in a democracy everybody counts; black, white, tall, small, fat, thin, gay, straight – everybody, every single person, ‘counts’.

Let’s be clear I am not saying that every prisoner should be allowed to vote, only that where we allow the court to suspend the right to vote it has to be based on reason not rhetoric – there has to be some connection between the crime committed and the sentence passed.

Look, take the case of a man who goes out on Friday night, gets drunks, gets involved in an argument that descends into a fight, is arrested for assault and appears in court on Monday morning – when I ask people whether a man in this position should lose his driving licence, almost every single one says the loss of his driving licence should not be a part of the sentence “because he had not committed a motoring offence”.

Quite so.

So why do we remove the right to vote from prisoners who have not been convicted of any electoral offence?

Where someone has been convicted of electoral fraud then suspension of the right to participate in elections for a fixed period should be a sentence open to the courts – not a stick wielded by politicians for ulterior political motives.

And it is not as if others countries share the UK view that a prison sentence automatically ousts the right to vote; they don’t.

Many nations, including Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, have no form of electoral ban for imprisoned offenders at all. In others, however, severe restrictions make it very difficult in practice for offenders to vote. In Cyprus, for example, an inmate must happen to be out of prison on the day of the elections, and in Slovakia, prisoners can legally vote but no provision is made to allow them to do so.

The Republic of Ireland lifted its ban in 2006, passing legislation enabling all prisoners to vote by post in the constituency where they would ordinarily live – and the first thing they did in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela was to give every single prisoner the right to vote because they had spent too long living with apartheid to allow it to continue to infect their electoral system; and electoral apartheid is what we have in the UK as long as we say one section of the community – prisoners – cannot vote.

In 13 European countries, electoral disqualification depends on the crime committed or the length of the sentence. Italy, Malta and Poland, for example, ban those deemed to have committed serious crimes. In Greece, anyone sentenced to life receives a permanent voting ban.

Germany’s law actually urges prisons to encourage their inmates to vote, although it does ban those whose crimes undermine “democratic order”, such as political insurgents. You see Germany, with its chequered human rights history (like that of South Africa) ‘gets it’ where the UK doesn’t.

Germany ’gets it’ that there is a risk that by excluding people from taking part in the very essence of a democratic process by voting, they will accept that exclusion and not only become disengaged, but then they’ll stick two fingers up to your society by starting their own way of doing things which results in gang culture, crime and lawlessness.

Germany is not alone.

Until 2005 Austria banned all those sentenced to more than one year. However, a convicted murderer challenged that and won, meaning that Austria now allows the vote in all cases except where the offence is particularly relevant – such as electoral fraud.

Other than the UK, the only other European countries with an outright ban on prisoners voting are Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg and Romania; hardly countries at the forefront of human rights.

While I’m of course pleased that a decision finally seems to be on the horizon on prisoner voting, the reality is that if introduced as suggested it will work unfairness – and be in no doubt, these Lidington concessions are not made out of a concern for human rights, but stem from a recognition that even the longest of long grass, into which these things are so often kicked, ultimately has its limits.

Lidington wants to see prisoners serving under 12 months, located in open prisons, and cleared for day release being allowed home leave on election day to vote – be honest, could he have restricted it any further?

Our government needs to recognise the European Convention on Human Rights is not some ‘a la carte’ menu in a restaurant, where you can pick and choose what rights you want to enforce and those you wish to ignore, all the rights protected by the Convention are enforceable – and let us not forget the UK signed up to this Convention well half a century ago.

The UK led the way in post-war Europe and drove this historical Convention forward – over fifty years later, if anything should make anyone ’physically ill’ it is not the prospect of giving all prisoners the vote, but the shameful way we have for half a century walked over hard-won rights and freedoms that our ancestors considered so vital to any democracy that they died for them.

Main article: New plans to allow prisoner votes

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and other prison-related publications