Issue Report: Prisoners right to vote

Should people serving prison sentences be permitted to vote in elections?

Many countries restrict the right of those sentenced to imprisonment to vote in elections. For example, convicted prisoners are automatically banned from voting in Armenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxemburg, Romania, Russia and the United Kingdom. In Australia, prisoners are only entitled to vote if they are serving a sentence of less than three years. Only two US states (Maine and Vermont) permit prisoners to vote, although Utah and Massachusetts also did so until 1998 and 2000 respectively. In France and Germany, courts have the power to deprive people of voting rights as an additional punishment, but this is not automatic. Eighteen European states, including Spain, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, place no formal prohibition on prisoners voting. In practice, however, it is often difficult for prisoners in some of these countries to vote: in the Republic of Ireland, prisoners have the right to be registered to vote in their home constituency, but have no right to either a postal vote or to be released to cast a vote at a ballot box. Since 1999, South Africa has had no restrictions on the right of prisoners to vote. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote; the first federal election in which Canadian prisoners in federal jails (generally those serving sentences of two years or more) were permitted to vote was in 2004. The issue is particularly controversial in the United Kingdom and the USA. In April 2001, the British High Court rejected a case brought by John Hirst (a man serving a life sentence for manslaughter), who argued that the ban on prisoners voting was incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. In March 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights; the European Court’s Grand Chamber rejected the British government’s appeal in October 2005. As of June 2006, however, there has been no change in UK law on the matter. Much controversy in the USA results from the fact that, in some states, people who have been in prison are banned from voting for the rest of their lives, even after they have fully served their sentences. This is especially controversial in Florida, given the closeness of the 2000 presidential election result there and the fact that a disproportionately large number of ex-convicts are black or Hispanic (statistically, more likely to be Democrat voters). One in forty Americans of voting age are ineligible to vote because they are, or have been, in prison. The arguments below relate directly to whether those currently serving prison sentences should be allowed to vote, but could readily be adjusted for a debate about whether ex-convicts should have this right.

Democracy: Does prisoner voting uphold democratic practices?

Allowing prisoner voting respects democratic practices.

Even governments can choose to rule that prisoners forfeit their right to vote or deserve the punishment of being deprived their vote, we should ask, “what’s the higher road?”. In terms of democracy, the higher road is to extend the vote to all citizens, including citizens that have commited crimes and are imprisoned (they are still citizens). This is the higher ground.

Depriving prisoners a vote wrongly disenfranchises them

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the infringement of prisoner voting rights did not meet the test for what’s considered “reasonable.” Justice McLachlin wrote, “The wholesale disenfranchisement of all penitentiary inmates, even with a two-year minimum requirement, is not demonstrably justified in our free and democratic society.”[1]

Unhelpful to ban voting by prisoners serving for 6 months

Prisoners should have very right to make a decision based on their own morals .

Part of the freedom of this country is the freedom to choose based on personal moral ethics. Several debates have been held discussing whether or not people should take a test to decide whether or not they are aware enough of the issues to make their choice. However this debate has been won a hundred times over based on the fact that people have the right to make decisions based on their own reasoning. If that reasoning is sufficient is a matter of personal opinion, something that has no place in our legal system.

Prisoner voting cheapens votes of citizens

Canadian Alliance MP Vic Toews said that the 2002 Canadian Supreme Court decision in favor of prisoner voting “cheapens everyone’s vote.”[2]

Prisoner voting would demean the entire electoral system.

The electoral system is based on a society’s collective sense of respect for the law, citizenship, and democratic processes. These are precisely the values that felons have flaunted. In this way, offering them a right to vote demeans the entire spirit of the electoral system.

Prisoner voting would undermine the public's sense of justice

UK attorney general Dominic Grieve said: “If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice”.[3] Even worse, it would insult the victims of crime.

Felons have bad judgement, should not help elect reps

Tucker Carlson, MSNBC News Commentator. “The Situation with Tucker Carlson”. June 26, 2006. – “Now why would we, as citizens, as non-felon citizens, want felons helping to pick our representatives. If you’re a convicted felon, convicted of a violent crime, you have bad judgment. Why do we want people with that judgment picking our representatives?”[4]

Rights: Do prisoners have a "right" to vote?

Prisoners retain many rights, including the right to vote

We should respect their human rights and should infringe upon their liberty as little as possible, except for the protection of the public.

Voting Rights of Prisoners. Australian Democrats Action Plan. – “Prisoners do not lose all their rights in prison, only some of them. Other rights are inalianable and are guaranteed by international and domestic law.”

National Voter Registration Act of 1993. U.S. Congress. October, 1998 – “The Congress finds that the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right.”[5]

Prisoners have a right to express interests through voting

The needs of prisoners are currently not represented. Issues such as prison overcrowding and abuse by warders are not treated seriously as political issues, since those most directly affected cannot vote and the public generally has little interest in prisoners’ well-being.

Prisoners must be able to influence world they will re-enter.

Prisoners should also have the opportunity to influence the formation of policy on healthcare, education, the environment and all the other issues that affect the world into which almost all of them will some day be released.

There is no state interest in denying prisoners a vote

Depriving a citizen of a right requires a compelling state interest. But there is no solid one for depriving them of a right to vote. The primary purpose of sending a criminal to prison is to punish them and to protect society from their criminal acts. Depriving them of the right to vote cannot be said to be a serious part of either of these main reasons for sending a criminal to prison. Taking away someone’s freedom of movement is sufficient punishment; depriving them of a vote is excessive punishment. Preventing them from committing another crime is sufficient protection for society; protecting society from a prisoner’s vote/opinion is a rediculous notion.

We cannot assume that they do not wish to vote.

While many prisoners may not wish to vote we cannot assume this goes for the entire prisoner population. It is their right to have the option of voting and the choice of whether or not to use it.

Voting is a privilege (not right) that criminals fairly lose.

The clearest indication that voting is a privilege and not a right is the fact that minors cannot vote. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable for the state to deprive criminals of their voting privileges.

If minors have no right to vote neither should prisoners

Not all citizens have the right to vote. Only trusted members of society have a right to vote. Indeed, minors are not yet fully trusted members of society, given that they are not yet mature enough. This is why they can’t vote. With this precedent in mind, it is appropriate to conclude that prisoners should also not be able to vote. They have demonstrated that they are not responsible enough to vote. If this was deemed unreasonable, we would really have to re-do the voting age.

Only qualified citizens have a right to vote

Alexander v Mineta, U.S. Supreme Court. October 16, 2000. – “The Equal Protection Clause does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote.”[6]

Criminals forfeit the right to vote

When a citizen breaks the laws of the state, they forfeit many of the rights and protections of the state, including the right to vote.

Prisoners are unfit for society so unfit to vote

UK Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said in 2001, “The courts have ruled that convicted prisoners, many of them dangerous, cannot be allowed to take part in normal society. How, therefore, can it be sensible to give them a say in how that society should be run?”[7]

Prisoners lose freedom; what's problem with losing vote?

"Do Criminals Have The Right To Vote?" Thoughts on Freedom, Australian Libertarian Society

“If we are all agreed that convicted felons should have their right to liberty temporarily removed, then why are we so anxious about protecting their right to vote (a far lesser ‘right’ than liberty)?”

Most prisoners don't care about voting

"Prisoners don't care about their right to vote". Telegraph. 15 Dec. 2006

“I can offer some well-informed guesses about how my old cellmates in HMP Belmarsh might react to the news that their Christmas present from Brussels is to be a new right to put their crosses on ballot papers from behind bars. Indifference, incomprehension or dismissive expletives would be their likely responses.”

Prisoners’ interests are represented by NGOs and others.

These entities ensure that prisoners are not ill-treated. Prisoners do not deserve any further representation.

Prisoners deserve voting privileges only when they act responsibly.

Prisoners can only be given the rights of members of society when they are deemed capable of acting as responsible members of society.

Discrimination: Does depriving prisoners of a vote discriminate?

Depriving prisoners a vote continues legacy of disenfranchisement

"Keeping Felons from Voting". July 9, 2007

“Last month, the New York State Assembly unanimously passed a bill expressing regret for New York’s role in the slave trade. The move was a recognition of the state’s history as much as it was an apology. “A lot of people don’t even think slavery happened here,” said its prime sponsor, Assemblymember Keith Wright of Manhattan.

But it did. Slavery was not simply a Southern affair. Neither were the laws used to keep former slaves and their descendants from the polls. Today, New York’s laws depriving some people with felony convictions of their right to vote serve as an ongoing, painful reminder of that legacy.”

Depriving prisoner vote "disenfranchises" only because more minorities are felons

Edward Feser, Ph.D. Instructor, Pasadena City College. "Should Felons Vote?". City Journal. Spring, 2005.

“The frequently heard charge is that disenfranchising felons is racist because the felon population is disproportionately black. But the mere fact that blacks make up a lopsided percentage of the nation’s prison population doesn’t prove that racism is to blame. Is the mostly male population of the prisons evidence of reverse sexism? Of course not: men commit the vast majority of serious crimes – a fact no one would dispute – and that’s why there are lots more of them than women behind bars. Regrettably, blacks also commit a disproportionate number of felonies, as victim surveys show. In any case, a felon either deserves his punishment or not, whatever his race. If he does, it may also be that he deserves disenfranchisement. His race, in both cases, is irrelevant.”[8]

Punishment: Is it wrong to punish prisoners by depriving vote?

Depriving prisoners their vote exceeds judge's punishment

Voting Rights of Prisoners. Australian Democrats Action Plan.

“As part of their citizenship, convicted persons in detention should be entitled to vote. To deny them this is to impose an additional penalty on top of that judged appropriate by the court.”

A right to vote hardly diminishes a prisoner's sentence.

Even with the right to vote, more fundamental freedoms would continue to be deprived from a prisoner (most importantly, their physical freedom of movement). In general, therefore, offering the right to vote to prisoners hardly diminishes the principal forfeitures of these citizen-prisoners or the punishment they incur for their crimes. It is, therefore, an unnecessary and excessive punishment or forfeiture to deprive them of their right to vote.

Depriving prisoners of a vote is simply mean spirited.

Surely, we should punish criminals. But, depriving prisoners of the right to vote goes beyond reasonable punishment (physical imprisonment itself is very hard on a person) and into the realm of mean spiritedness. Particularly in societies where rehabilitation is an objective, such mean spiritedness is counter-productive.

Prisoners are rightly punished by denying their vote

They are shut away not only to protect society, but also to symbolise society’s disgust at their acts. Although prisoners are no longer executed in many jurisdictions, the idea of “civic death” is that they lose the rights of citizens without dying in a literal sense. Those who offend against the common good of society should have no right to contribute to the governance of society. They can only be readmitted to society, both physically and in terms of their rights, when they have made amends to society by serving their sentence.

Rehabilitation: Does prisoner voting help in rehabilitation?

Prisoner voting offers dignity, aids rehabilitation

This is essential if they are to avoid re-offending after being released. Denying prisoners the vote implies that they are sub-human: this damages their dignity and sense of self-worth, undermining efforts to help them control their behaviour. Arne Peltz, a lawyer defending Canada’s inmates in the 2002 supreme court case on the matter, said, “There will be a little more dignity in prison and I think over time that will help reduce crime over the long term.”

Rehabilitation is main goal (not punishment); voting helps

Rehabilitation is the main goal in the prison systems of modern, liberal democracies. Punishment is seen less and less as the objective of the prison system, or at least it is less important than rehabilitation. Therefore, if offering voting rights to prisoners helps in rehabilitation, this benefit outweights any concerns surrounding it “weakening the punishment of prison”.

Voting offers prisoners a sense of citizenship, reintegration

Voting encourages prisoners to take an interest in current affairs, which will aid their reintegration into society. Where prisoners are allowed to vote, they are usually required to vote in their home constituency, to avoid several hundred inmates in one jail causing a sudden swing in the constituency in which the jail is sited. This encourages them to take an interest in the particular community from which they came and into which they will probably be released.

Prisoner voting undermines punishment and so rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation should focus upon making prisoners realise and sincerely regret the effects of their actions. It should not aim to give them a feeling of dignity or the illusion that they are full members of society.

Punishment, not rehabilitation, is the objective in prisons.

Taxes: Does principle of no taxation without representation apply?

The state is hypocritical in taxing prisoners but not giving them a vote.

Prisoners are not treated as “civically dead” when it benefits the State: they are liable for taxation on any earnings and savings that they have. There should be no taxation without representation.

Few prisoners earn enough to be liable for taxation.

The right to vote does not follow from the obligation to pay taxes.

In many countries, people start earning money and paying tax before they are old enough to vote (particularly if they leave school as soon as they are allowed to do so). This implies that the right to vote is given to those who can be expected to use it responsibly. Those convicted of serious enough crimes to be imprisoned have shown that they have no respect for society. They therefore cannot be trusted to vote responsibly in the interests of society.

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