Votes for Prisoners

We are a mature society in the 21st century and therefore should extend universal suffrage to prisoners. If we see the penal system as rehabilitative rather than punitive we should afford those convicted of a crime the opportunity to engage in society as reintegrated citizens of that society within the constitution. By withholding the vote we are silencing them, and sending a clear signal that they are not part of mainstream society, their opinion is not valued and their voices unheard.

edited on Jan 31, 2015 by Nicholas Charalambides

John Z Apr 5, 2015

Should this be limited to non-violent offenders only?  Or perhaps only to those who are soon to be released from prison?  For someone serving a life-term, is there a need to have then "re-integrate" into society?

Tom Austin Apr 5, 2015

A Fair point was made in our earlier discussions about this John; that suffrage be regained after the 'punishment' phase of the sentence.

Lifers still have their part to play within the prison community, having them in the mix might well help encourage younger prisoners to play their part in politics.

John Z Apr 5, 2015

Do the statutes define what portion of the prison sentence is for "punishment" and what portion is not?  For instance, in a 10 year prison sentence, what portion is for "punishment"?

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015

Within statutes? No, I think that unlikely. There seems to be a facility for the extension of a prison term, beyond that of 'punishment' - perhaps laid-down as a tariff, for 'public safety'.

it appears then that making such a distinction for 'voting rights' might not be a positive move.

John Z Apr 6, 2015

So the concept you mentioned does not exist yet at this time?  So yes, that would not be realistic at this time.  So perhaps the focus should be on non-violent offenders and those soon to be released from prison.

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015

Clearly, clearly, there is in fact a portion of some prison sentences that goes beyond 'punishment' alone.

For me, the distinction between time served as 'punishment' and time served for any other reason, brings me back to arguing for ALL prisoners to continue to be able to vote. Irrespective of their crime(s).

John Z Apr 6, 2015

But being that it appears the public (and Government) will reject that notion that ALL prisoners have a right to vote, perhaps you can modify your position to one that will have a likelihood of being accepted by the public. Because if the draft Constitution says ALL, and then it is rejected, then what was really accomplished?  At least if it is limited, then it may pass public scrutiny.  And then you can save the next battle for a different day.

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015


My stand on this issue has less to do with 'prisoners', and more to do with any State's potency to direct who has, and who has not, the right to vote.

[I did have a proposal to do with 'Child', but I have no idea what ideas have made the cut and what have not.]

John Z Apr 6, 2015

As it is now, there is an absolute ban on prisoners voting.  The ECtHR said that this absolute ban is a violation of the ECHR.  The Government has not taken any further action on this topic.  So as for the Constitution, if the Constitution is silent on this topic, then the ban will remain;  if the draft Constitution calls for ALL prisoners have the right to vote, then that will be rejected by the people;  if the draft Constitution calls for non-violent offenders and those soon to be released to be allowed to vote, then this may pass.  So I understand your principles (as mine is to have an absolute ban), but being uncompromising may result in accomplishing nothing.  I am willing to compromise on this.

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015

John, none of us has standing to declare what may or may not pass muster when it comes to selling the Constitution to the public. Even so, I am willing to imagine that any draft-Constitution put forward for public scrutiny could have alternative provisions under each heading:

(On this particular issue) Full ban, partial ban, full acceptance.

With my one eye, that eye set upon the eventual selling of the Constitution, I see one particular "Unique Selling Point" (USP) and that is "Citizen rather than Subject".

I think this shall have an impact upon this particular Proposal.

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015

Oh silly me!!

Of course there will be no facility to offer a choice on this issue in the draft-constitution. For any such differentiation between those that would be able to vote and those that would not would change over time.

However, the question of what body should decide how suffrage should be allocated; it's limitations and qualifications. Is a matter for the Constitution.

Bob Stammers Apr 6, 2015

I think this is largely a question of education. The government is made up of politicians who are naturally jealous of their "right to govern" and not be overruled by wiser heads elsewhere. The public, in my experience at least, have no knowledge of the reasons for the dilemma and, not being particularly enamoured of criminals, aren't concerned with their rights or the fact that this is the only right (apart from liberty) that they lose.

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015

Education is no solution, I'm afraid Bob. It's going to take a 'damascene moment', for each of us; to change hearts on this topic and when selling the idea of Citizen to Subject, and selling this Constitution to the wider public.

This particular Proposition is proving handy in drawing wider issues closer together though. Well done J Smith.

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Ian Smith Apr 6, 2015

As John has pointed out the ECtHR has ruled on this issue to the effect that our current UK law denying prisoners the vote is in breach of the ECHR.  Perhaps somebody with the time to research it could study the judgment to give us some ECHR compliant solutions here to consider alongside full suffrage for all prisoners. All the best, Ian

Rob G Apr 6, 2015

My own preference would be for anyone whose remaining term of imprisonment is less than one general election interval (so at the moment, less than 5 years). No absolutely compelling principle there, but a recognition that the society a prisoner will be released into will be being run by the politicians chosen at that election, and a dislike of the arbitrariness of the current situation:

If I served 3 years' imprisonment beginning in 2011, or the second half of 2010, I wouldn't lose my right to vote at any general election. If I served 1 year's imprisonment beginning in November 2014, however, I would, even though society had judged my crime to be less severe. That just seems capricious to me.

Yet again, I realise I'm on the "woolly liberal" end of things - I'd actually prefer judges to have to consider whether an individual crime deserved the removal of this civic participation, but don't think there's a great deal of support for that idea.

As an absolute bottom line, I'd like a recognition of the fact that when we ratified Protocol 1 to the Convention, a large number of prisoners did have the right to vote - only those guilty of felonies, rather than misdemeanours, were unable to. So rather than the European Court imposing a new obligation on the UK, the UK had walked away from the obligation as it stood in 1952.

Nicholas Charalambides Apr 6, 2015

Without delving into technicalities, the European Court of Human Rights is against the current blanket ban that the UK has on prisoners voting rights. It doesn't have any type of preferred model, though objects to disenfranchisement being automatically the case upon subjective conditions like detention.

If there is some sort of graduation linked to the length of the sentence, or the crime committed, then the Court would find a much easier time of accepting bans in the case of the most serious offenders.

So in a nutshell, full suffrage for prisoners could be possible, but suffrage linked to the crime is acceptable too, granted that it is reasonable.

For those of you that want to delve into the technicalities, the Court's rulings on Scoppola vs. Italy are most relevant to the discussion at hand:

Tom Austin Apr 6, 2015

Thank you for that info Nicholas.

I still think 'violence' is a bad measure, and anything that is likely to cause public-outcry too is a terrible sort of benchmark.

I'll continue to press the point that, as with basic 'humanity', the right to vote should not be the subject of 'fashion'.

Bob Stammers Apr 6, 2015

It seems to me that the default position, regardless of its popularity or otherwise, is that everyone, including all prisoners, should have the vote. That would comply with the UDHR, the ICCPR and ECHR.

If we then want to disenfranchise some prisoners a clear rationale needs to be developed to support such disenfranchisement. The rationale needs to pass a series of well-established tests against discrimination. The judgment in the case of Hirst v United Kingdom ( at paras 76 & 82 specifies the fundamental flaw in the current legislative arrangements, essentially that the law affects an effectively arbitrary group.

It seems to me that the public view on this matter is largely held on the basis of ignorance: information on the ECtHR rulings have been largely confined to variations of "those Europeans telling us what to do" and "prisoners are bad people" so of course they shouldn't have the vote. Prisoners don't lose the right to food, to housing, to not be tortured, and so on. It's difficult to put your finger on why it is they should lose the vote.


Alastair Bruton Apr 6, 2015

As Tom Austin mentions in his first comment above, I posted an idea that didn't get voted through suggesting that the state should be obliged to provide for the rehabilitation of prisoners and to recognise two distinct parts to any sentence of imprisonment, the first being to do with punishment and the second about rehabilitation. In that context, to restore the vote to any prisoners who had completed the punishment phase made obvious sense. Unfortunately, that idea didn't win sufficient support - or proved too contentious - but an idea about rehabilitation of offenders did make it through to this phase, and I hope that we can draft it to include this distinction. Certainly the issue of votes for prisoner and of rehabilitation generally needs to be addressed by the constitution. The way that prisons are currently used as a dustbin is a disgrace to our society and is utterly contrary to the values that this constitution should seek to entrench.

Mark Cooke Apr 12, 2015

Whatever the academic arguments here,   this is never going to run with public opinion, and is a distraction from the main issues.  It's clearly going to be necessary to leave some details of the franchise to Parliament to determine,  so I'd just leave this to them.  They'll have to get the legislation past a supreme court, and if the EHCR or similar is embedded in the constitution a blanket ban on prisoners is unlikely to stand up.



Tom Austin Apr 12, 2015

IF! We are to affirm that Sovereignty resides with the 'Citizen', it can hardly be 'academic' to set out basic parameters as to how the status of citizen should be awarded or who or where the power to vary that status should lie.

Alastair Bruton Apr 14, 2015

So far there's no agreement about whether what we're drafting should be a minimalist constitution with a real chance of receiving enough support to be implemented or an idealist constitution with everything that people working on this project would like to see implemented in the hope (perfectly realistic in my view) that we can shift the political debate in the right direction. I think that we need to have this debate out in the open with two competing 'ideas' and a chance to vote, and I'd encourage LSE to make this process possible.

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Alastair Bruton Apr 14, 2015

Could I suggest some clauses to give effect to this idea for us to debate:

1. The state has a responsibility to provide for the rehabilitation as well as the punishment of anyone convicted of a criminal offence. The court is required to state what proportion of any prison sentence is to be considered as a punishment, this proportion not to exceed two-thirds of the total sentence.

2. In fulfillment of this principle, anyone sent to prison should have the right to vote in the constituency in which their prison is located either throughout their time in prison or once they have have completed the punishment phase of their sentence.

John Z Apr 14, 2015

If the prisoners vote in the district that the prison is located, then depending on the size of the prison population and the district population, the prison vote may have an unordinary/unfair influence on the outcome of the election.  Why not have the prisoners vote in their home district?

Alastair Bruton Apr 14, 2015

That makes good sense.

Tom Austin Apr 14, 2015

Who the hell do we think we are?! Or what we are 'about' to become.

I have elsewhere attempted to ground the status of Citizen as being fundamentally linked to being born within the 'bounds' of the Constitution. So that the very nature of Citizen comes into being with the establishment of 'being'. [Full stop.] So much for the yet unborn.

For those preexisting. I sense a 're-birth', a baptism. How can this be otherwise, when Sovereignty passes to us all at the inception of this Written Constitution?

There are bad people in this world, too many to account for. Really bad people reduce in number the more-worse we imagine some to be. The effect of this is: IF! we were to deny that most fundamental adjunct to Citizenship - the right to vote, to any of our number; why (oh why!) would we confer the right to such denial to the whim of the State?

In short: I feel sure that any who would contemplate the denial of so-fundamental a Right to any other has failed to grasp the possibilities inherent in our contemplated 're-birth'.

[Time for some 'pointed' mirth...

"There are 10 types of person in this world, those who understand Binary, and those who do not.]

Nicholas Charalambides Apr 14, 2015

Thanks Alastair for your suggestions.

The one problem I envisage here is that we are delving far to deep into what will constitute punishment or rehabilitation which exceeds the scope of our discussions here. Individuals who have committed serious crimes, including those on life sentences, will just further complicate the debate over punishment and rehabilitation.

I think you're right to make the distinction overall though, but perhaps we might only refer to it with crimes carrying a sentence shorter than a set duration?

For example, if we set the limit at 10 years (purely an arbitrary number) we could say that offenders would have to be involved in the political process if their sentence is less than this, as it will form part of their rehabilitation, since they will soon re-enter society. This also goes someway to complying with the ECtHR's opposition to a blanket ban on prisoner's not being permitted to vote.

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