Should Prisoners Have the Right to Vote?

A topic that has been in the news a lot recently is the question of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote in the UK. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that preventing prisoners from voting essentially denies them their human rights and is therefore against the law. In our society, there is a variety of opinions on this matter, and while Prime Minister David Cameron is vehemently opposed to the idea, Parliament is set to debate this question and make a ruling. 

So, what is the answer to this question? Should all prisoners have a blanket right to vote, or should everyone in prison be equally denied the opportunity to vote? Or is there another solution, whereby the right to vote is dependent on the nature of the prison sentence, with certain prisoners – depending on their crime and sentence – given the right to vote? 

The Prime Minister has claimed that the thought of giving prisoners the right to vote makes him physically sick, and Parliament voted in February 2012 to continue the ban, by a whopping margin of 234 to 22. But the government’s human rights advisor has apparently recommended against ruffling any feathers at the ECHR and favours giving some form of voting rights to prisoners instead of continuing the outright ban in this country.  

It is precisely this type of blanket ban that the European Court of Human Rights is against. Its ruling states that individual countries can have complete control over which prisoners get to vote but cannot impose an outright ban that prevents all prisoners from voting. As such, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR currently holds the UK guilty of violating its human rights laws.  

An interesting and reasonable way to resolve this would be to give voting rights to prisoners with sentences that are due to end over the next four or five years. This would enable individuals who are likely to be released into society some say over the term of Parliament that will be sitting when they are released. It seems pointless to give the right to vote to those individuals who are not at all likely to be released during the period. 

Another point of view is that those who are in prison for minor crimes should not be clubbed together with those who have been jailed for much more serious crimes. However, a counterpoint to this would be that those imprisoned for minor crimes are more likely to have much shorter sentences and therefore are quite unlikely to miss an opportunity to vote in the first place. 

There is a multiplicity of voices and opinions when it comes to this particular question. The fact is, however, that a majority of the people in this country are of the opinion that international laws seem to be undermining our own legislative process, especially when it comes to human rights. It is not difficult to see why so many people think that internationally imposed human rights laws tend to go a bit too far, to the point of imposing on the sovereignty of an independent nation, particularly in light of two recent instances. The first instance is described above – the ECHR’s decision to hold the UK guilty of a human rights violation for its ban against prisoners voting. The second is the case of extremist religious cleric Abu Hamza, whose extradition case dragged on (on the grounds of human rights) until it was finally decided in the government’s favour a few months ago. 

Coming back to the point of giving prisoners the right to vote, Parliament can decide either to continue the ban irrespective of the ECHR ruling, to make amendments and impose conditional bans subject to the term and nature of the sentence, or to lift the ban completely, which does seem very unlikely indeed.