Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Prisoner Votes

In Punishment on May 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM

I am a keen reader of normblog, the weblog of Norman Geras, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester.  While he does not allow comments on the blog, he will often respond to readers if they contact him on his Twitter feed, which is something else that I follow. The fact that Norm kindly profiled me on his blog has absolutely no bearing on my positive recommendation. Well, it might have some bearing, but in truth it is minor compared to posts such as this one, which led me to reading this wonderful article.

But I am digressing. The purpose of this post is not to praise Norman Geras but to note a disagreement. He has been writing quite extensively on his blog about prisoner votes.  (See here plus follow his internal links.)  Norm appears to be  against prisoners having votes and I am in favour. One of Norm’s points is this:

so many supporters of voting rights for prisoners feel it unnecessary to make any case for them; they just take it for granted that prisoners have the right to vote and have it unconditionally.

If truth be told I would put myself in that camp. I do not really see why it needs justifying why prisoners need a vote. I feel the onus is more on the those who feel that prisoners are not entitled to a vote to explain their reasoning. In any event, here I shall provide one reason why I feel that prisoners with terms where they are likely not to serve five more years should have a right to vote.

General elections in the UK are not on fixed dates like the US Presidential election, the dates are variable but must be no later than five years from the previous election. Consider a prisoner who is due for release one day after a general election. If he had not been entitled to vote that means that for up to five years as a free man he never had a say in who governed him.  This, to me, is unfair.  Even if one feels that a prisoner who is serving, as an example, 20 years, should have no right to vote in elections at the beginning and middle of his sentence, because for the full electoral term he will be in prison and has no rights to say who governs him, that does not mean to say that he should have no rights to say who governs him as a free man.

If this argument is accepted by people who feel that prisoners should have no right to say who govern them while in prison, then they might argue for fractions of  votes for prisoners.  This fraction is more difficult to calculate as elections are not on fixed dates, but one would be biasing in favour of the prisoner, who would therefore have no grounds for complaint, if the full five years are assumed between elections. In simple terms, if a prisoner is due for release one year after a general election, then their vote weight should be reduced by 1/5. In other words, their vote is counted as 80% of the vote of someone who is free for the full term. As an another example, if someone is due for release 3 years after a general election then their vote weight should be reduced by 3/5 and their vote would count for 40% of a normal vote.

There is an obvious objection to this based on a contradiction. This is to do with minors. Similar logic could be used to suggest that a 14 year old should get 20% of a vote and a 16 year old 60% of a vote etc., with the calculation based on how many years they will be aged 18 or over through the electoral cycle. I would reject this argument. The reason a 16 year old cannot vote is not the same reason as why an adult prisoner cannot vote. The 16 year old is deemed not mature enough to make a decision and if that is the case, he is equally not mature enough to make a 60% decision as a 100% decision. A prisoner does not have the right to vote as it is a right that is taken away from him. Hence I see the two cases as different.

Incidentally, there is an inbuilt compensation at the end of the life to a 16 year not having a say in who governs him for period of the electoral cycle when he is 18 or over. This is that he will be given a full vote (assuming he is over 18) in the last general election prior to his death. His final vote will therefore encompass a period when he is no longer alive and people who are no longer alive have no right to vote – even by proxy.

An objection to this argument, more valid, in my mind, is this: consider a general election was held the day before a criminal is sent to prison for say 3 years. For the full length of his prison sentence (unless there is an early election for any reason) the prisoner will have had a say in who governed him while in prison. His vote is not retroactively reduced by 60% and nor could it realistically happen. Hence some prisoners have a say on who governs them while in prison. If  some prisoners are able to vote to determine who governs them while in prison,  in my opinion all prisoners should be able to do so. I see no reason why it should make a difference if the sentence is a short or a long one. By this argument, prisoners should be allowed to vote and be provided a full vote.

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  1. I’m still undecided upon the issue, however, I disagree on your point about long term prisoners. If it is decided prisoners should be entitled to vote, all prisoners should be able to vote.

    Why? Quite simply because who is governing the country still affects prison conditions. Take an extreme example :

    DC has decided to start locking up EdBalls & any supporters, purely political prisoners, detained indefinitely. With the right to vote, they at least have the chance to vote fir someone who is against this ludicrous example. Even a less extreme example where a political decision is made to lock-up prisoners 24/7, with a vote you have a chance to be represented in this regard.

    So, if the argument is you should be given a vote because you have the right to determine who governs you, it should apply to all without discrimination.

  2. gazhay,

    Thank you for your comment. The argument I make towards the end of my post is that all prisoners should be entitled to vote. I specifically state:

    If some prisoners are able to vote to determine who governs them while in prison, in my opinion all prisoners should be able to do so.

    This is not too dissimilar from your second sentence. However, my argument is different to yours. You say:

    if the argument is you should be given a vote because you have the right to determine who governs you, it should apply to all without discrimination.

    I.e. it seems to me that you are arguing (or implying that it is argued that) all people, including prisoners, should have the right to vote simply because everyone should have the right to have a say in who governs them.

    My argument is different. It is based on a consistent treatment of prisoners. I am effectively saying that some prisoners did have an influence on who governed them while in prison, or at least for a while if their sentence stretches over a general election, because (assuming they were 18 or over) they had a vote at the general election prior to going to prison. Consider someone who commits crime who understands that there is a chance of him getting caught. If there is an election he might, with this in mind, decidedly not vote for a political party that declares that it will be “tough on crime.” If this prisoner is then caught red-handed carrying out a robbery the day after the election then his vote is not retroactively taken away from him. He was able to vote to influence how he was treated in prison. My argument, based on consistency, is because that prisoner, and others like him, had a right to vote to influence how they were treated when prisoners, then all prisoners should.

    The key difference between my argument and your argument seems to be that you are suggesting that prisoners and free people should be treated alike whereas I am arguing that all prisoners should be treated alike. But, if you accept the argument you make, we would both come to a similar conclusion that prisoners should have the vote. I trust this is clear.

  3. You seem to have overlooked the introduction of fixed tefrm parliaments. This means that we can now be almost certain when the next general election will be (barring a vote of no confidence or a 55% vote in favour of an early dissolution).

    Local election and European election dates are also fixed so allowing people to vote when they can expect to be released within the appropriate term of office would be possible.

    Any method of awarding prisoners a fraction of a vote would compromise the anonymity of their vote. For this reason alone (apart from the fact that it is slightly barmy) it should be rejected.

  4. Thanks Simon. At the end of my post, I reject the fraction of voting argument, but your own case against it is a strong one.

  5. What Simon said.

  6. Mr Ezra

    You are correct that the onus of this issue is on those who oppose voting rights for prisoners.

    In general there is much confusion with the issue of rights and duties. There is a right to vote provided that one meets the defined criteria. The reason I applaud your dissent is that you avoid the cliche about adverse racial imprisonment and stick to the crux of the issue.

    The flip side of this issue is convicted felons are prohibited from jury duty and in normal times
    military service. If being incarcerated places a restriction on certain duties than an extension of the same logic should have some parallel reduction of rights.

    If you can clarify this matter within a UK perspective. Is the removal of rights at a certain crime level such as felony or the number of days in jail?

    The topic of rehabilitation is an intersting topic. If person x is on parole has the time been served or is this part of the penalty.

    Removal of voting rights for low level offenders is a bad idea. When we go to felons we are talking about crimes against society. When a person goes on trial for murder the prosecutor is a government employee. The person in question if they have been convicted in a fair trial has violated the laws and the unwritten social contract 99% of us live by. The reduction of rights and duties in such a situations seems a logical consequence for bad behavior.

    That being said there should be some avenue for redress in specific situations. At a certain point good behavior over certain lengths of time should qualify many for restoration to full rights and duties.

  7. Beakerkin,

    Thank you for your comment. The matter you raise whereby prisoners are exempt from jury service and compulsory military service I think is different. Being exempt from these duties does not harm the prisoner, it relieves them of a duty. I do not feel that this should be a compensating factor for loss of voting rights.

    But I do think 2 general points can be made that I have not yet mentioned:

    1. I feel loss of voting rights could be provided as part of the punishment by the judge. i.e. the de facto position would be that prisoners are entitled to vote, but a judge could also provide a further punishment on top of detention, which in itself is a loss or a right to freedom, of a removal of the right to vote while in prison. Hence a standard sentence for a crime might be three years in prison, but the judge for various reasons might award a sentence of three years in prison with loss of voting rights. This would remove my objection in my main post because then the removal of voting rights is an additional considered punishment affecting a longer period of time. The prisoner might not give much weight to this punishment, but that is an aside from it is one.

    2. Jonathan Aitken is a former Government minister who ended up in prison for perjury. He has made an interesting suggestion in the Guardian which I think is worthwhile paying attention to. He argues that votes could be provided to inmates “in their journey of rehabilitation” in the last two years of their sentence. I feel that if restriction of votes is part of the punishment then there is no reason why “for good behaviour” or other sensible reason, this restriction on voting could not be lifted.

    None of this takes away from my gut instinct that prisoners should have the right to vote.

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