(Title Image: Daily Post)
Voting rights for prisoners (pdf)
Published: 11th June 2019
“No doubt many will believe that giving even one more prisoner the vote is a step too far; whilst those who support full enfranchisement will be disappointed we have not been bolder. In recommending the vote for those sentenced to less than four years we have recognised the evidence to our inquiry, public opinion and the different views of Committee members.”
– Committee Chair, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East)
As part of proposed electoral reforms, the Committee was tasked with considering whether prisoner voting rights should be extended. Following a legal challenge, prisoners who are released on licence, are held on remand or have committed certain offences (failing to pay fines, contempt of court) are already allowed to vote.
I outlined my own views at Prisoner Voting: As silly as it sounds?
1. The arguments in favour of extending prisoner voting rights
- Voting is a right, not a privilege – Apart from the right to liberty, prisoners retain all other rights applicable under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), though voting isn’t an absolute right (so it can be restricted). It was argued that imprisonment alone shouldn’t deprive someone of their right to vote.
- Prisoners remain citizens – The Committee said this is one of the most commonly cited arguments in favour. The Prison Reform Trust told them disenfranchising prisoners suggests they’re not a part of society. So, if we place a value on active participation then denying prisoners a vote undermines that and disadvantages certain groups, particularly ethnic minorities who are over-represented in prisons.
- Extending prisoner voting rights is based on “what’s right” – There are numerous examples of unpopular policies being introduced in Wales, with various public smoking bans being cited. If extending voting rights could help rehabilitation efforts, then despite the unpopularity of the idea it may still be the right thing to do. Several witnesses argued that voting would aid rehabilitation, but no hard evidence was provided to support these assertions.
- Prisoners receive public services and should be able to hold decision-makers to account – Prisoners still use public services like health, social services, housing (when preparing for release) and in some cases have contact with their children’s schools. Prisoners also pay taxes on savings, while those released on licence and in work pay income taxes like everyone else.
2. The arguments against extending prisoner voting rights
- Voting isn’t an absolute right – As mentioned, interpretations of the ECHR are that voting isn’t a universal or fundamental right and it can be restricted; for example, prisoners serving life and foreign nationals serving prison sentences in the UK can still be denied the vote. Current prisoner votes rules are already compatible.
- There’s little public support for it – In 2017, YouGov polls showed that 60% of people were opposed to extending prisoner voting rights. The Committee accepted that while attitudes have slowly changed in favour, opinions remain divided.
- Voting is part of a “social contract” – People who took part in Committee-commissioned surveys said losing the right to vote was part of a package of punishment alongside the loss of liberty. People breaking the rules of society shouldn’t expect any positive benefits in return – an argument the UK Government made when opposing the legal challenge (though they were unsuccessful).
- Prisoners may not use the right to vote – Prisoners and prison staff both told Committee members that prisoners are highly unlikely to use their right to vote; in the Republic of Ireland turnout within prisons in the first election where they were allowed to vote (2007) was as low as 10% and only 14% of prisoners registered. The figures have fallen further since then.
3. How extended prisoner voting rights should be introduced
The Committee recommended that prisoner voting rights in Senedd and local elections should be extended to all those serving sentences in Wales of less than four years, as well as 16-17-year-olds being held in custody on the same basis as adult prisoners if/when the voting age is lowered to 16.
Committee members Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) and Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) disagreed with the Committee’s recommendations.
In terms of practicalities, the Committee recommended that prisoners register to vote in their home constituency (i.e. by using a previous address or a declaration of local connection). Voting would be done by post or by proxy. The Committee didn’t recommend hustings within prisons, though they concluded it would be beneficial for more politicians to visit prisons and speak to prisoners.