Is Voting A Human Right?

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled this week that the UK Government is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by maintaining a blanket ban on voting for serving prisoners. If we are to abide by it’s ruling then legislative proposals to lift this ban must be put in place by 11th October 2011.

This is a highly emotive subject and the arguments for and against extending suffrage to convicted prisoners range widely. The majority of people in this country would argue that the removal of voting rights is a just consequence of breaking the law. David Davis (Conservative MP) writes:

“Prisoners have rights, of course – the right to decent treatment, to be properly fed, clothed, and housed – but we should not confuse them with the more general rights of free British citizens. When you commit a crime which is sufficiently serious to put you in prison, you sacrifice many important rights – your liberty, your freedom of association, and your vote. When you break the law, you cannot make the law.”

Fellow MP, Robert Walter agrees with him:

“For more than 200 years our criminal justice system has been guided by a simple and sound formula: if you’re convicted of a serious crime, you forfeit the right to freedom. If you breach the contract with society and compromise that right, you’ve compromised the right to participate in civic processes.”

On the opposite side of the fence Dr Peter Selby, former Bishop to HM Prisons and now President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards for Prisons has stated that:

“Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose of deterrence or reform. What it does is to state in the clearest terms society’s belief that once convicted you are a non-person, one who should have no say in how society is to develop, whose opinion is to count for nothing. It is making someone an ‘outlaw’, and as such has no place in expressing a civilised attitude towards those in prison.

The notion of civic death is applied selectively. People serving a sentence of any length continue to contribute during their sentence. If they are civically alive when it comes to financial contributions, they should be treated in the same way when it comes to basic human rights.”

It is also argued that continuing franchisement while in prison will assist with rehabilitation, but there doesn’t appear to be any empirical evidence of this.

To a certain extent I can understand Dr Selby’s argument. The notion of ‘civic death’ does have a lengthy, historical signficance. It dates back to the Middle Ages where a convicted felon would forfeit their land as part of the punishment. This of course, meant that they failed to meet the ‘land-owning test’ in relation to voting rights before suffrage was widened in the late 19th Century. The Forfeiture Act of 1870 removed the rule whereby felons forfeited their land, but took the vote from anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in prison. This element of restricted voting rights has been amended and made stricter in the ensuing years until we now have a blanket ban on voting for all prisoners.

So, on the surface of it, a simple nod to the ECHR ruling could be made by reverting to the original 1870 restrictions as it could be argued that we have now become overly strict by applying a blanket ban. Additionally, we are out of step with our fellow Council of Europe members. Of the 47 member countries only 13 operate a blanket ban. Others are more selective on which prisoners are subject to a voting ban. Some countries allow all prisoners to vote, others remove the vote from prisoners convicted of electoral related crimes. Some operate a length of sentence based ban. Turkey allows prisoners the vote (in theory) but only if the prisoner happens to be out of prison on the day of the election. There is then, no consistency even amongst those countries who already do not impose a blanket ban. A logical follow up to this, must surely be, that if the right to vote is ajudged to be a fundmental human right as enshrined in the convention then no prisoner can be legitimately disenfranchised, regardless of the crime committed or length of sentence. Therefore, all countries where some prisoners are unable to vote will remain in breach of the convention until they allow every prisoner to have a democratic voice!

This may be a bitter pill to swallow for those who cannot stomach the idea of convicted murderers, rapists and paedophiles continuing to participate in the democratic process. A valid viewpoint, as it does seem unfair that those who abuse and break the law should be allowed to vote for the people who make the laws that they refuse to abide by. In addition, most responsble members of society would accept that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities and that it is only fair and reasonable to impose consequences on those whose actions harm society. Furthermore, a legitimate line of thought might be related to the fact that we are discussing protecting the human rights of people whose very crimes have breached the human rights of their victims. Therefore, if one wished to hold to a 21st Century version of the Deuteronomical law of an eye for an eye etc, then the removal of a prisoner’s human right in return for the breach of their victim’s human right might have a valid scriptural basis as well as a justice based legitmacy.

But, is the right to vote an actual human right in the first place? Some would say that this is not the case. They tell us that the right to vote is an entitlement granted to those who respect the laws of the land. Automonous Mind (a fellow wordpress blogger) expresses it this way:

“Voting is not a human right, it is an entitlement granted to those in society who respect its laws. People are not born with the right to vote, otherwise we would be carted off the polling station straight from the maternity wing. So this should not be a matter for the European Court in the first place. But as is the way with supranational bureacuracy, mission creep is seeing an increasing labelling of entitlements as rights, bringing control of certain matters under legal jurisdiction and the result is a perverse undermining the rule of law and ability of the state to impose appropriate sanctions on offenders.”

Additionally, the ruling is based on article 3, protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free and fair elections. However, the actual wording of the article is as follows:

The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

It appears to me, that on the face of it, a blanket ban on prisoners voting would not breach this article. In my opinion, the extension of interpretation of it to those disenfranchised as a punishment for their crimes is a step too far. That does not mean that I disagree with the principle of lifting a blanket ban nor am I wholly against the argument that such a ban may be entirely outdated. My dispute is with those who would seek to make it a human rights issue whilst advocating a partial lifting of the voting ban. This is not a halfway house. If it is a human right then either no prisoner gets the vote or they all do. You can’t maintain the ban for prisoners who are less desirable and lift it for those guilty of lesser crimes.

I believe that if giving prisoners the vote can be proven to assist with rehabilitation and reduce rates of recidivism then allowing prisoners serving shorter term sentences to vote is desirable and beneficial to society as a whole. But, this should be the decision of an enlightened and progressive civilised country seeking the best for it’s citizens as a whole: It has nothing to do with human rights legislation or human rights per se.

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