Can someone please explain to me why it is generally accepted as a good thing to deny prisoners the right to vote in public elections?

What precisely does David Cameron think he will achieve, other than pandering to public outraged sentiment, and tabloid faux disgust, by stating that his government will NEVER allow prisoners to exercise their citizen’s prerogative?

Look, unless politicians had never made a meal of this, then almost no-one would be that fussed. What do they really think will happen if those in jail could vote in elections? Perhaps politicians would find it unpalatable to appeal for the votes of prisoners, and thereby be somehow beholden to them.  Surely this would be unnecessary, and political candidates would just ignore prisoners, as they already do?

Maybe those in power believe that convicts might be able to coalesce into a significant voting block, which would need to be factored into their campaigns? Well, if prisoners could only vote by post for the location they came from, then that very thin layer of votes would be spread relatively evenly across the country, and there be irrelevant as a voting block.

Consider this. Those people who have committed crimes, so serious that they need to be locked up, have not exactly shown a predilection for civic responsibility. I’m sure there must be a survey in existence of the number of prisoners who had any kind of voting record before being incarcerated. That being the case, how many could we realistically expect to use their franchise?  If we really want to add civic punishment to prisoners, then why not cancel their passport or driving licences? These can then be reapplied for upon release from jail.

So if the practical concerns are shown to be bogus, is the Prime Minister’s concern, bizarrely, based on mere principle? Lets think about that.  I suppose he might say that a person needs to be truly deserving of the vote. In the past, women, servants, slaves, and non-land owners weren’t seen to be deserving of the vote. Of course these groups were entirely innocent citizens, and simply hadn’t yet been included in the list of those deemed capable of voting responsibly.  

In the UK, there doesn’t exist an overall principle that everyone can vote, as in proper democracies, from which certain groups are then deducted, based on specified criteria.  Rather, conversely, only specified groups are gifted the vote, which can be removed in certain circumstances, such as being declared mentally impaired, being imprisoned.

Who cannot vote in a UK parliamentary election?

  • young people under 18 years old
  • foreign nationals (apart from citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth countries resident in Britain)
  • members of the House of Lords
  • sentenced prisoners
  • people convicted within the previous five years of illegal election practices

So the Prime minister clearly believes that lifting the ban on prisoners would actually cost him votes. For the time-being  lets disregard his views on which parties they may vote for. Unfortunately for him, this is a battle he cannot win, as the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the U.K. is a signatory, stipulates this ban is unlawful. Prisoners who wanted to make trouble (and of course they would) need only claim, rightly, to being unfairly disenfranchised, in order to stick it to The Man.

This has to be a tactical mistake, and a big distraction (but what do I know about political tactics?). It’s an unworthy cause, and a waste of political capital. I am all for prison reform, which make sentences far more onerous, but I see no evidence whatsoever to support the PM’s cause. In fact, I do believe that there is potential for disengaged individuals to reform, and still feel part of the society they have offended against.

Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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