Prisoner voting: common sense and a cross-party majority prevail
Commenting on the announcement by the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Committee, Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:
“The European Court of Human Rights, the Attorney General, and now the Bill Committee have all declared that the automatic and indiscriminate ban on all convicted prisoners voting is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Today’s announcement marks an important step forward in a dispiriting process that has dragged on for over eight years.
“Most people accept that it is important to make the punishment fit the crime so it is only regrettable that the Committee has recommended retaining an automatic ban for prisoners serving sentences of more than 12 months, regardless of their particular offence, rather than extend the franchise further with certain exceptions, for example in cases of electoral fraud.
“The repeated and unnecessary delay to the execution of the Hirst v UK 2005 judgement should be a source of shame to successive governments. Since then, tens of thousands of people in prison have been denied the right to vote in local, national and European elections. The UK government has flouted human rights law, faced substantial financial penalties, ignored the advice of prison governors, bishops to, and inspectors of, prisons and taken up Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money in order to stop sentenced prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections.
“People are sent to prison to lose their liberty; not their identity. The nineteenth century punishment of civic death makes no sense in a twenty first century prison system whose focus is on rehabilitation, resettlement and the prevention of reoffending.”
“The Bill Committee has taken substantive evidence and come to a considered cross-party view to overturn this outdated and uncivilised ban. With local and European elections due in England and Wales in May 2014, a referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014, and a general election in the UK in May 2015, the government should accept the Committee’s recommendation and introduce legislation as a matter of urgency to ensure that prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less can act responsibly and vote at last.”
- Following the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst vs. UK in 2005, it has been repeatedly highlighted that the automatic and indiscriminate ban on all convicted offenders, barring those on remand or in custody on default, does not comply with Article 3 Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights 1950. Despite that judgment, which called for the UK to amend its position according to the convention, successive governments have delayed taking action to implement reform.
- The only other adult UK citizens who cannot vote in general elections are hereditary peers who are members of the House of Lords, life peers, patients detained in psychiatric hospitals as a result of their crimes, and those who have been convicted of corrupt or illegal electoral practices in the previous five years. Remand prisoners, people held in contempt of court and fine defaulters held in prison are all eligible to vote.
- The UK is out of step with all but seven Council of Europe countries, as well as many developed states around the world, when it comes to prisoners voting. In South Africa, all prisoners have the right to vote. Handing down a landmark ruling in April 1999, the constitutional court of South Africa declared: “The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. Practically, there would be few difficulties in expanding the arrangements already in place enabling remand prisoners to vote to the rest of the sentenced prison population. The Electoral Commission has set out a mechanism by which prisoners could be enfranchised though a system of postal or proxy voting. Through its own audit procedures, the Ministry of Justice has been systematically seeking prisoners’ level of interest in voting and is known to have received positive responses.
- Practically, there would be few difficulties in expanding the arrangements already in place enabling remand prisoners to vote to the rest of the sentenced prison population. The Electoral Commission has set out a mechanism by which prisoners could be enfranchised though a system of postal or proxy voting. Through its own audit procedures, the Ministry of Justice has been systematically seeking prisoners’ level of interest in voting and is known to have received positive responses.
- Our submission to the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Committee is available by clicking here.
- The briefing Barred From Voting: The Right to Vote for Sentenced Prisoners, supported by the Aire Centre, Criminal Justice Alliance, JUSTICE, Liberty, Penal Reform International, Prison Reform Trust and UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, is available to download here.