My school had a bonkers rule book. It was huge and full of dotty laws and regulations. We had to learn it. It was only in adulthood we realised why: it emulated real life. It taught us both to live within a world of pointless and arbitrary laws, but also when and how to break them or get them changed.
I’m doing my final degree module and, just like my other final year module, I am amazed at the questions people ask, and the incorrect answers they get, regarding rules they should have known from the start.
Not knowing what happens if an assignment is under the word count, or over the word count, or the exact submission deadline, or how to get extensions, or what if you need longer still, and what happens if it is late and what happens if it is too rubbish to submit. Common questions from people, even at the end of their degree. But it’s all in the assignment rule book.
I was asked today whether I thought prisoners should be allowed to vote. I think so. My argument is because while in prison they are still members of society as society is processing them as citizens while in prison. That is, society has taken them, housed them and will continue to do so until a date determined by society and then release them. All these things suggest to me the prisoners continue to be part of society and, as such, entitled to a say in how society is run.
Let’s see what the arguments are for preventing prisoners from voting.
For: prisoners are the worst criminals and deserve special punishments.
Counter: it is the opposite that is true. It is being a particularly bad criminal that determines a prison sentence, not the nature of the sentence that determines how bad the criminal is. However, disregarding that cause-and-effect error, worse crimes do result in prison. But it is the being sent to prison that is the punishment, so why add other punishments? There are a range of punishments available to the courts (prison, fines, warnings, suspended sentences, driving ban, removal of the right to be a company director, being banned from certain professions and so on) and why should the removal of the right to vote be automatically applied to one of those punishments? There is no correlation between voting and freedom of movement and association, so why link them at all? It is illogical. It would make more sense to have the removal of the right to vote as one of the list of options and use it in cases of, for example, electoral fraud.
For: people in prison are different from other criminals.
The difference between prisoners and people being fined is the decision of the judge on the day: factors include prejudice, mood, current government policy on prison overcrowding and current media attention to the offender’s crime. It seems somewhat random for these factors to determine whether someone loses the right to vote in one case (through being sent to prison) and another not losing the right to vote for the exact same offence (through being fined).
For: depriving the prisoner of the chance to vote is a punishment.
Counter: most people choose not to vote. If it is to be a punishment, make voting by prisoners compulsory.
For: by committing a crime, a person loses their rights.
Counter: no they don’t. A person found guilty of a crime has all the same rights as anyone else. Even when someone is put into prison, they lose their liberty to freedom of movement and association, but they are entitled to a roof over their head, food, protection from violence, protection from self-harm, medical treatment, to speak to their friends and relatives by telephone, to have visits from people, to watch TV, to read books, to participate in education, to play games, to write and receive letters. They continue to be a parent to their children and married to their spouse. They continue to be entitled to pay for work, to receive legal representation and the right to appeal. Picking the right to vote as a right to remove seems somewhat random, arbitrary and inconsistent. In short, criminals do have rights.
For: sick-minded people like mass-murderers or serial paedophiles don’t deserve the vote.
Counter: the criminally insane are already covered by the 1918 Representation of the People Act which says people with a mental illness or disability that prevents them from making a reasoned judgement are disqualified from electoral registration. But that argument does not explain why other prisoners should be excluded too.
For: prisoners are not entitled to have a say in how the country is run.
Counter: when prisoners come out of gaol they typically return home; they will certainly go somewhere. Why should they not have a say in how the local area is managed or how the country is run since they have an interest in the state it will be in on their release?
For: prisoners might vote for better conditions for prisoners.
Counter: don’t they know more about prison conditions than anyone else? Why should they be maltreated in bad prisons and not be allowed to have something done about it? They might also vote for pay rises and more training for prison officers.
For: losing the right to vote is part of the prison experience.
Counter: why? What about people committing the same crime but receiving suspended sentences because of their life circumstances – shouldn’t they also lose the right to vote? And what about early release – they are still prisoners but on the outside. Are they not entitled to vote? If so, why? They are still serving their sentence. It is arbitrary and unlinked to the sentence to make the condition for voting whether they are inside the prison serving their sentence or at home tagged and subject to curfew. If it is related to the sentence, not being in prison, then the argument for removing the vote from prisoners falls down.
For: it is because we do not want such bad people being able to influence politics.
Counter: to achieve this one must also remove the right to vote from ex-prisoners for life. Then it is not a matter of being in prison, but of having ever been in prison. But this results in injustice as seen in the USA where black men in some parts of the country are grossly under-represented in the voting, the societies are racist in their sentencing, but the black men cannot vote to change the system. Removing the right to vote from prisoners creates sub-classes of society who become excluded and are kept excluded. This is totally contrary to the concept of total suffrage: votes for all. Either one believes in one person one vote – meaning prisoners can vote – or one believes only a select elite can vote.
For: prison is about punishment.
Counter: it is also about rehabilitation. Those societies that permit prisoner voting have seen roughly a 10% lower re-offending rate s a consequence, seemingly to do with keeping the prisoner engaged with the community they came from and intend to return to.
For: we’re not interested in the opinions of people in prison.
Counter: prisoners have plenty of time and tend to read newspapers fully, keep up to date with current events and discuss societal issues. They are often better informed on voting issues than busy parents and workers outside of prison.
For: denying prisoners the right to vote is a deterrent.
Counter: if being sent to prison is not a deterrent, then not being able to vote certainly is not. Especially since most people don’t bother anyway.
Oh, there’s so much more to this, but I need to go to bed.
There are also some philosophical arguments for it and some social science arguments, but I need to spend some time digging those out.
Essentially those arguments boil down to: are prisoners human like the rest of us or a different kind of animal? To answer that you need to consider what the circumstances are in any given time in any given society as to why an individual is sent to prison and then appreciate the rules change. If the rules change – sometimes they are strict and sometimes lenient – then it becomes harder to attach removing the right to vote to being in prison. Instead, it must be attached to committing an offence and be for life. But that creates a society where a bad leader can invent a crime “Being in opposition” and suddenly the opposition cannot vote. This has been done many times in the past in many countries and the way to prevent it is to allow everyone to vote, including prisoners. Preventing prisoners voting enables far greater evils than prisoners can achieve by voting, and there is evidence showing allowing prisoners to vote improves their behaviour.