Howard League blog · 14 May 2018
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee (EHRC) of the Scottish Parliament, a cross-party group, has published a report on prisoner voting. It sets out the ethical and some of the practical issues and reviews the evidence it gathered from a wide range of respondents. It is a positive contribution to a difficult debate.
My position is unequivocal: civic engagement is a duty and a responsibility for everyone and I would like to see as many people as possible voting and constructively engaged in local and national government.
Democracy only works when people are part of it. People who have contravened the rule of law need to be brought back into civic life and the more we ostracise them from the polis the less likely they are to re-enter society and lead a law abiding and productive life.
Having said that, I don’t think the EHRC report adequately deals with some of the practical problems of prisoner franchise.
All prisoners should have the vote
Firstly, I am unhappy with sorting prisoners into those considered acceptable to have the franchise and those who are not. Creating a hierarchy of crimes is offensive to victims and would be susceptible to fashion and media witch-hunts.
The pariahs of the day will always be added to when a horrible crime is committed or the tabloids launch a campaign. It is my view that all prisoners should have the vote.
The problems, however, are not about principle but are practical and the EHRC did not find a workable solution to these; indeed, I do not have a comprehensive solution either. Countries which give prisoners the vote use the proportional representation system, which makes things much easier. Our constituency based electoral system creates real problems for prisons.
I am going to assume that all prisoners would be given the vote and that they would be able to vote in all elections. If some prisoners or elections are excluded the problems remain even if in a diluted form.
The EHRC report suggests that prisoners should get a postal vote from their last address. This would mean that a convicted criminal would be on the electoral register at that address even if the tenancy or house owner has changed.
Tenancies can change several times during the period of a sentence. I am not sure a new tenant would be happy at having an additional person registered at their home who may well have been involved in a high profile crime or be well known locally. Having a prisoner registered at an address might affect credit ratings or be confusing when applying for moves to new tenancies as the electoral roll is used to check up on people.
Creating a hierarchy of crimes is offensive to victims and would be susceptible to fashion and media witch-hunts
Even if certain categories of offences are excluded from the franchise, so a convicted sex offender, for example, would not get the vote and would therefore not be registered at an address, this system could still mean an ‘unpopular’ individual could be registered there.
Imagine a new tenant finding out that a burglar was registered at their home and appears to be a member of their family. They would probably go straight to the local MP and even the media, with some justification.
Recent legislation has imposed a duty on individuals to register every year, so the new tenant or house owner would have to put the prisoner on the electoral role, apparently adding them to their family. Or, they would be imposed on the family home by the prison which would have to register the inmate.
An option rejected by the EHRC was that prisoners would be registered where they currently reside, in the prison. This would be the simplest administratively and would be similar to how university students are registered. As the report points out, this would impact on the local constituency as the possibility of up to 2,000 additional votes could have a significant impact, particularly in local elections when such a number voting in a council ward would swamp the local residents.
Perhaps none of this is insurmountable and I hope that solutions can be found. Looking at other jurisdictions that have prisoner voting, I think they all are proportional representation systems, which reduces the challenge to localities but the problem of home registration remains.
I would be interested to hear what practical solutions would help us in the UK to move forward.