Some prisoners should be given the vote – let’s get nuanced!

Matt Williams’ article on votes for prisoners is worth reading: he gives a concise yet thorough discussion of the complexities of the issue and offers a strong case for denying prisoners the vote. I would, however, like to offer a response to his article.

As a starting point, we should note there are two key questions at the heart of his discussion and it’s important to keep them separate. The first question is ‘Should prisoners be able to vote?’ The second question is ‘Should the European Court of Human Rights be able to answer that question on Britain’s behalf?’

On that second question, Matt says ‘the ultimate decision [on votes for prisoners] must be left to the national government otherwise sovereignty is threatened.’ I wholly agree. Parliament ought to remain as the supreme law-making authority of the land. Parliament’s accountability to the British people at the ballot box ensures that the laws it creates reflect the public will.

We also already have our own British judicial system to ensure that Parliament doesn’t act outside of its powers or infringe civil liberties. We shouldn’t have to face interference from European judges and we ought to remove our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and adopt our own British Bill of Rights.

But it is on the first question – votes for prisoners – where I disagree with Matt. Some prisoners should indeed be able to vote, namely those on short sentences or who are soon to leave prison.

Let me begin by saying that I will not use the traditional arguments often used to support votes for prisoners, such as the denial of the vote allegedly harming rehabilitation or undermining human dignity. Frankly, I find these unconvincing. Most prisoners don’t care about voting and in addition, rehabilitation comes from things like education and skills training, not voting.

Instead, denying all prisoners the vote violates a more fundamental democratic principle. This principle is that all citizens who must abide by the laws of the land reserve the right to vote for the members of the legislature who create those laws. This principle is fundamental because it preserves our own freedom. We may have to obey laws that restrict free action but since we’ve been able to vote for the people that create these laws then they are in a sense self-imposed and hence compatible with our freedom.

The problem with banning all prisoners from voting is that you violate this principle. Let me demonstrate with an example. Imagine Person X. He is given a 6-month custodial sentence in January 2010 for repeat minor offending. He is unable to vote in the May 2010 general election and is then released from prison in July 2010. For the next four or five years he must obey laws made by people he wasn’t able to vote for, just because he happened to be in prison at the time of the general election. In my view, this means that the deprivation of his freedom extends beyond his prison sentence.

In his article, Matt justifies this deprivation by saying that it ‘makes no sense for those who break, ignore and abuse the law to have any influence over those who make the law’. However, the problem with this view is that you deny the prisoner the ability to influence the law for a long time after they’ve left prison, namely, until the next election.

This is the wrong approach; a prisoner should be able to vote in an election if they’re going to have to live for a significant period of time in a society governed by laws created by politicians elected in the prisoner’s missed election.

Let’s take another example to further demonstrate my position. Imagine Person Y. She is given a 20-year custodial sentence in January 2010 for murder. I believe that Person Y should not be allowed to vote for the next fifteen years because they’re not going to be living in society for the next fifteen years. But they should be allowed to vote towards the end of their imprisonment because they will soon be coming out of prison and having to abide by the laws of society.

Hence I take issue with Matt’s statement that ‘you cannot have a system which gives the vote to some prisoners and not others. [It] has to be either all or none’. To this I say, ‘Why not?’ Why not have a system where prisoners on short sentences or who are soon to leave prison can vote? And where prisoners on longer sentences can’t vote, at least not until near the end of their imprisonment?

Similar to other European countries, judges should be able to follow appropriate guidelines and use their discretion in deciding which prisoners can vote and which can’t. It doesn’t have to be all or none.

Prisoners ultimately have to rejoin society, a society governed by laws voted upon by elected representatives in the legislature. If we are to respect one of our fundamental democratic principles then prisoners should be able to vote on these elected representatives since they will live under their laws.

If this is denied to a prisoner then the democratic principle is violated and the deprivation of the prisoner’s freedom is extended beyond their time in prison. For me, that’s unacceptable. Hence you’ve got to give some prisoners the vote.

Published in Palatinate, Official Durham Student Newspaper – 16th June 2012


  1. I agree with your thoughts on this. Another argument on similar lines of democracy is how do we know if it’s legitimate to ban certain actions, if the only people who feel that they have to take those actions (i.e. those who break the law by doing so) are denied an input and resultantly frozen out of political discourse?


    1. Yeah I think that’s another strong and interesting way of arguing for prisoners’ votes.

      I read today that Breivik will be able to vote from prison and that he’ll also be able to correspond with his supporters through letters. They in turn will post these writings onto the Internet. The Norwegians certainly have it figured out!

      I’m trying to think how I might respond to that democracy argument if it came up in a debate. Perhaps something like this?:

      “A democracy can only function if its citizens abide by the rules of democracy. The first and most important rule of a democracy is that a citizen must respect the right of the majority to create the laws. All citizens of an appropriate age have the right to participate in political discourse but once the majority view has been formalized in law the citizen must accept the democratic outcome. It is not acceptable to take matters into your own hands and violate the will of the majority – by doing so you are showing contempt for the rules of democracy and indicating that you are not prepared to participate in the democratic process. Prisoners have shown such contempt and therefore should be denied the vote.”


      1. Haha, I suppose at least they’re being consistent!

        You’re right that is the main response. The reply that would come out in your deputy PM speech however 😛 , is firstly, even if they have broken a rule of democracy, that doesn’t necessarily mean removal from it is their only possible punishment or deterrent from breaking that rule, but more importantly, the argument becomes more complicated when considering the kinds of bad laws which I was talking about. So, while a citizen might break a law, if a citizen cannot follow it because it is an immoral law (e.g. segregation laws) or because it is in some way unavoidable that they break that law (e.g. homophobic laws/acquisitive crime in conditions of poverty), they don’t have full agency over that decision, or feel that following it would be an immoral one. In these cases (which we by definition can’t distinguish), it’s not that they have shown a contempt for democracy, it’s that they a) cannot physically follow those rules or b) feel that valuing democratic choice should not take an absolute governance of their own moral choices, and the immorality of following the law itself is their block from following democratic decisions, not their own contempt or desire to take matters into their own hands. While of course we have to draw the line and act on laws in order to have justice, it’s unconstructive to block people’s input in these cases as they are forced into a cycle of breaking the law without recourse to change the conditions that caused that cycle, or convince us of the existence of that cycle, something which the elections they’ve taken part in the past may have been insufficient to do, as is the nature of gradual change.

      2. Yes, I like that a lot.

        Does this mean though that your PM would argue for a) all prisoners getting the vote? Or b) would you argue for just those who have committed crimes where they didn’t possess full agency or where they thought the law was immoral?

        Because you say that we can’t by definition distinguish the two types of prisoner.

  2. Well it would depend on the debate obviously, but you’d probably end up arguing for a broad brush treatment. All cases would be indistinguishable as a) if there were a ‘immoral law’ defence which afforded special privilege (like internet/media access) then presumably everyone would take it (unless of course you make it a binary choice between lack of agency plea and the not guilty plea, which might make things more interesting) and b) many of the people who commit crimes because society is in some way skewed against them, i.e. through lack of education or whatever else do not know that they didn’t have full agency, or that those factors had a hand in their crime, but nevertheless given the vote they would still angle for those factors to not exist.


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