Debate Magazine

If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Make It Illegal. Emma Goldman

Posted on the 15 February 2011 by Humanwriter @roseforman

Should prisoners have the right to vote? A contentious issue in Britain at the moment. There are basically two sides to the argument, outlined brilliantly in this BBC article. An informative article but not wholly useful in coming to a conclusion.  The whole issue came about after convicted criminal, John Hirst, argued that to refuse him the right to vote breached his human rights, under the European Convention, Protocol 1 Article 3. The Article reads as follows:Article 3 Right to free elections The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.It is important to note that the convention did not outline any specific details as to who gets to vote and what restrictions there are on voting. The European Court, therefore, in the Hirst v. UK case came to the conclusion that the state did have some level of a margin of appreciation, meaning that laws such as these should be decided on the discretion of the individual government and are not universally applicable to all member states of the European Convention.  However, the Court also came to the conclusion that under the Convention everyone does have the right to vote and the only exception to this are limitations the government decides to put on prisoners, for example only those serving less than a year sentence.  The limitations should be ‘proportionate’.  Of course that is a contradiction of terms in itself, an absolute right that everyone can vote BUT with state imposed limitations.So should they vote or not? Is it part of the punishment to deny a prisoner the right to decide his or her political destiny? Many argue that the restriction of liberty is the only right that criminals relinquish when they commit a felony, if we deny them the right to vote, what else should be denied as well? Where do we draw the line in restricting someone their human rights? As the Convention states:  The High Contracting Parties (states) shall secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I of this Convention. So if every human is entitled to rights, when does a prisoner stop being a human?On the other hand, however, there is the issue that the sheer scale of prisoners in the UK may actually be election-deciding numbers, if an electoral candidate appeals to the prison population then would their vote have more weight than the average law-abiding citizen? Would prisoners actually use their vote? And if they do will it be an informed and educated vote? But then is any person’s vote educated and informed? I am of the opinion that giving prisoners the right to vote will help to politically motivate and educate some of them, and I optimistically believe that this may help “straighten them out.” Effectively giving them a sense of purpose by involving them in the political sphere and a legitimate place in society.To me the main point is always that human rights are innately universal, every human deserves the right to be called human, regardless of what they do, no one is subhuman, but then maybe some people (such as children or the mentally ill) are not capable of effectively enacting their rights?
Hirst v the United Kingdom (No 2)[2005]ECHR 681
European Convention of Human Rights

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