Should prisoners be allowed to vote?

Hannah Langworth looks at how, and why, the law might be changing in the UK

The question of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote is a controversial one. To answer it, you need to define the act of voting. Is it a human right which should be available to every citizen? Or is it half of a social contract, the other half being the responsibility to obey the law? The views of the UK's population on this issue are relatively uniform - 76 per cent of British people think that prisoners should not be given access to the ballot box (YouGov). And this sentiment is reflected in law - no British prisoner is currently given the vote.

The moral justification often given for this position seems straightforward to many: prisoners are being punished for their violation of the rules to which all citizens are subject and so are justifiably denied the rights which citizens normally enjoy - the removal of a prisoner's conceptual participation in society is a logical correlative to the removal of their physical participation in it. But, on the other hand, as prisons are regarded increasingly being for rehabilitation rather than punishment, does it really make sense to alienate prisoners from the democratic processes of the rule of law, rather than reincorporate them back into such systems?

Whatever your views, there's now no escaping the fact that the law is changing in the UK in favour of inmates. In 2005, British killer/prisoners' rights campaigner John Hirst brought a test case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on appeal after having his 2001 High Court demand for a vote rejected. He claimed that, in denying him and other prisoners access to the ballot box, the British government was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees all citizens of signatory countries (which includes the UK) the right to vote. The ECHR declared that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners voting was contrary to the Convention. As a judgment that the Convention has been violated is binding on all signatories, the British government was obliged to take action.

But it took the state a long time to do anything. Part of the problem was the ambiguity of the judgment. The ECHR pronouncement did not say that all prisoners in the UK must be given a vote, but merely said that a total ban was unacceptable, leaving plenty of opportunity for lengthy debate - and significant wiggle room. As time dragged on without legislative change, a head of steam built up as those campaigning for prisoners' rights argued loudly that the ECHR judgment could not be ignored any longer - in particular, those involved in the "Barred From Voting" campaign, an alliance of those working on the issue organised by the Prison Reform Trust and Unlock, a national association for reformed offenders, and supported by the Prison Governors Association and civil rights group, Liberty. These voices were particularly loud around the time of the election last spring as the Council of Europe issued a warning prior to the election that a case could be made that the election of the new government would be unlawful if prisoners were not given their say and afterwards expressed "profound regret" that the ban had not be lifted in time for them to do so.

Although no serious moves were ever made to question the May 2010 result, it appears that change is coming, with the coalition Government planning to extend suffrage towards some prisoners. However, they're not extending things very far. It was suggested at one point that those with sentences of up to four years would be allowed to put their X in the box, but the government's position now is to allow those with sentences of one year or under only to vote. But even this watered-down proposal looks set to face opposition from the Tory backbenches - and beyond. And as this issue touches so many big questions - the social purpose of prison, the definition of a citizen and the extent to which Europe should be able to influence law in the UK - it's sure to provoke debate beyond Westminster.

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