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.