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Debate: Prisoners right to vote

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Should people serving prison sentences be permitted to vote in elections?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by George Molyneaux. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

Many countries restrict the right of those sentenced to imprisonment to vote in elections. For example, convicted prisoners are automatically banned from voting in Armenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxemburg, Romania, Russia and the United Kingdom. In Australia, prisoners are only entitled to vote if they are serving a sentence of less than three years. Only two US states (Maine and Vermont) permit prisoners to vote, although Utah and Massachusetts also did so until 1998 and 2000 respectively. In France and Germany, courts have the power to deprive people of voting rights as an additional punishment, but this is not automatic. Eighteen European states, including Spain, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, place no formal prohibition on prisoners voting. In practice, however, it is often difficult for prisoners in some of these countries to vote: in the Republic of Ireland, prisoners have the right to be registered to vote in their home constituency, but have no right to either a postal vote or to be released to cast a vote at a ballot box. Since 1999, South Africa has had no restrictions on the right of prisoners to vote. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote; the first federal election in which Canadian prisoners in federal jails (generally those serving sentences of two years or more) were permitted to vote was in 2004. The issue is particularly controversial in the United Kingdom and the USA. In April 2001, the British High Court rejected a case brought by John Hirst (a man serving a life sentence for manslaughter), who argued that the ban on prisoners voting was incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. In March 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights; the European Court’s Grand Chamber rejected the British government’s appeal in October 2005. As of June 2006, however, there has been no change in UK law on the matter. Much controversy in the USA results from the fact that, in some states, people who have been in prison are banned from voting for the rest of their lives, even after they have fully served their sentences. This is especially controversial in Florida, given the closeness of the 2000 presidential election result there and the fact that a disproportionately large number of ex-convicts are black or Hispanic (statistically, more likely to be Democrat voters). One in forty Americans of voting age are ineligible to vote because they are, or have been, in prison. The arguments below relate directly to whether those currently serving prison sentences should be allowed to vote, but could readily be adjusted for a debate about whether ex-convicts should have this right.

Argument #1


Prisoners remain human beings. We should respect their human rights and should infringe upon their liberty as little as possible, except for the protection of the public. Denying prisoners the right to vote does not protect the public and is therefore an unwarranted infringement upon the human rights of prisoners.


People who have been sent to prison are rightly condemned to “civic death”: they are shut away not only to protect society, but also to symbolise society’s disgust at their acts. Although prisoners are no longer executed in many jurisdictions, the idea of “civic death” is that they lose the rights of citizens without dying in a literal sense. Those who offend against the common good of society should have no right to contribute to the governance of society. They can only be readmitted to society, both physically and in terms of their rights, when they have made amends to society by serving their sentence.

Argument #2


The views and needs of prisoners are currently not represented. Issues such as prison overcrowding and abuse by warders are not treated seriously as political issues, since those most directly affected cannot vote and the public generally has little interest in prisoners’ well-being. Prisoners should also have the opportunity to influence the formation of policy on healthcare, education, the environment and all the other issues that affect the world into which almost all of them will some day be released. Prisoners are not treated as “civically dead” when it benefits the State: they are liable for taxation on any earnings and savings that they have. There should be no taxation without representation.


In practice, few prisoners earn enough to be liable for taxation. In any case, the right to vote does not follow from the obligation to pay tax. In many countries, people start earning money and paying tax before they are old enough to vote (particularly if they leave school as soon as they are allowed to do so). This implies that the right to vote is given to those who can be expected to use it responsibly. Those convicted of serious enough crimes to be imprisoned have shown that they have no respect for society. They therefore cannot be trusted to vote responsibly in the interests of society; many would probably simply vote for candidates promising lighter sentences for criminals. Prisoners’ interests are already represented by NGOs and statutory prison inspection bodies, which ensure that they are not ill-treated. They do not deserve any further representation.

Argument #3


Giving prisoners the vote would aid their rehabilitation, which is essential if they are to avoid re-offending after being released. Denying prisoners the vote implies that they are sub-human: this damages their dignity and sense of self-worth, undermining efforts to help them control their behaviour. Voting encourages prisoners to take an interest in current affairs, which will aid their reintegration into society. Where prisoners are allowed to vote, they are usually required to vote in their home constituency, to avoid several hundred inmates in one jail causing a sudden swing in the constituency in which the jail is sited. This encourages them to take an interest in the particular community from which they came and into which they will probably be released.


Rehabilitation should focus upon making prisoners realise and sincerely regret the effects of their actions. It should not aim to give them a feeling of dignity or the illusion that they are full members of society. Prisoners can only be given the rights of members of society when they are deemed capable of acting as responsible members of society (i.e. when they are released).

Argument #4


Few, if any, people are deterred from crime by the prospect of being unable to vote. People are deterred from committing crimes by the prospects of their movement being restricted and of being separated from loved ones. The effectiveness of a sentence can be measured by how well it protects the public, how well it rehabilitates the offender, how well it reverses the effects of the crime committed and how well it deters future offending. Banning prisoners from voting is either counterproductive (i.e. in terms of rehabilitation) or has no positive effect.


Banning prisoners from voting is one part of a package of measures that exclude prisoners from normal society, the most obvious of which are restrictions on movement, communication and employment. By itself, a ban on voting may have minimal deterrent effect. As part of this package of measures, however, it sends out a strong signal of society’s revulsion at those who commit crime, thereby discouraging lawbreaking.

Argument #5


Linking a ban on voting to imprisonment is arbitrary. Many people who commit serious crimes are not sent to prison, because of their age, the effects upon their dependents or the likelihood that they will not re-offend. Others committing equivalent or lesser crimes, without these special circumstances, may be imprisoned. Even if it were ever right to deprive people of the vote as a punishment (the proposition arguments above would suggest this is never justified), this should not automatically be associated with imprisonment, but should be decided separately, as in France and Germany.


This is not an argument for letting all, or indeed any, prisoners vote. The imposition of a prison sentence is a good general index of the seriousness of a crime, and those who have committed serious crimes should suffer “civic death”. Where people are exceptionally not imprisoned, they should be deprived of the right to vote for the period for which they would usually have been imprisoned.



  • This House would permit prisoners to vote
  • This House would condemn “civic death” to history
  • That all adults deserve the right to vote
  • That the right to vote of all adult citizens should be recognised

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