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Debate: Prisoners right to vote

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

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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.

Rights: Do prisoners have a "right" to vote?


  • Prisoners have a right to express interests through voting The 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 must be able to influence world they will re-enter. 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.
  • There is no state interest in denying prisoners a vote Depriving a citizen of a right requires a compelling state interest. But there is no solid one for depriving them of a right to vote. The primary purpose of sending a criminal to prison is to punish them and to protect society from their criminal acts. Depriving them of the right to vote cannot be said to be a serious part of either of these main reasons for sending a criminal to prison. Taking away someone's freedom of movement is sufficient punishment; depriving them of a vote is excessive punishment. Preventing them from committing another crime is sufficient protection for society; protecting society from a prisoner's vote/opinion is a rediculous notion.


  • Voting is a priviledge (not right) that criminals fairly lose. The clearest indication that voting is a piviledge and not a right is the fact that minors cannot vote. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable for the state to deprive criminals of their voting priviledges.
  • If minors have no right to vote neither should prisoners Not all citizens have the right to vote. Only trusted members of society have a right to vote. Indeed, minors are not yet fully trusted members of society, given that they are not yet mature enough. This is why they can't vote. With this precedent in mind, it is appropriate to conclude that prisoners should also not be able to vote. They have demonstrated that they are not responsible enough to vote. If this was deemed unreasonable, we would really have to re-do the voting age.
  • Prisoners’ interests are represented by NGOs and others. These entities ensure that prisoners are not ill-treated. Prisoners do not deserve any further representation.
  • Prisoners deserve voting priviledges only when they act responsibly. 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).

Democracy: Does prisoner voting uphold democratic practices?


  • Allowing prisoner voting respects democratic practices. Even governments can choose to rule that prisoners forfeit their right to vote or deserve the punishment of being deprived their vote, we should ask, "what's the higher road?". In terms of democracy, the higher road is to extend the vote to all citizens, including citizens that have commited crimes and are imprisoned (they are still citizens). This is the higher ground.
  • Depriving prisoners a vote wrongly disenfranchises them The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the infringement of prisoner voting rights did not meet the test for what's considered "reasonable." Justice McLachlin wrote, "The wholesale disenfranchisement of all penitentiary inmates, even with a two-year minimum requirement, is not demonstrably justified in our free and democratic society."[1]
  • Banning prisoners serving 6-month sentences from voting is unhelpful. Daniel Machover. "Prisoners too should voteToday's agenda". The Guardian. May 11, 2001 - "Did you want the disaffected 18-year-old in your street, now serving a six-month sentence for criminal damage, to lose the right to vote in the present general election (the first one he or she can vote in), so that he or she feels even more alienated and disengaged from society on being released from custody? Wouldn't it be better if politicians canvassed such young people while in custody, to encourage them to feel that they have a stake in society and invite them to think about the political process itself?"


  • Prisoner voting would cheapen the votes of citizens. Canadian Alliance MP Vic Toews said that the 2002 Canadian Supreme Court decision in favor of prisoner voting "cheapens everyone's vote."[2]
  • Prisoner voting would demean the entire electoral system.

Punishment: Is it wrong to punish prisoners by depriving vote?


  • Depriving prisoners of a vote exceeds judge's punishment. Voting Rights of Prisoners. Australian Democrats Action Plan. - "As part of their citizenship, convicted persons in detention should be entitled to vote. To deny them this is to impose an additional penalty on top of that judged appropriate by the court."
  • A right to vote hardly diminishes a prisoner's sentence. Even with the right to vote, more fundamental freedoms would continue to be deprived from a prisoner (most importantly, their physical freedom of movement). In general, therefore, offering the right to vote to prisoners hardly diminishes the principal forfeitures of these citizen-prisoners or the punishment they incur for their crimes. It is, therefore, an unnecessary and excessive punishment or forfeiture to deprive them of their right to vote.
  • Depriving prisoners of a vote is simply mean spirited. Surely, we should punish criminals. But, depriving prisoners of the right to vote goes beyond reasonable punishment (physical imprisonment itself is very hard on a person) and into the realm of mean spiritedness. Particularly in societies where rehabilitation is an objective, such mean spiritedness is counter-productive.


  • Prisoners are rightly punished by denying their vote 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.

Rehabilitation: Does prisoner voting help in rehabilitation?


  • Prisoner voting offers dignity, aids rehabilitation This 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. Arne Peltz, a lawyer defending Canada's inmates in the 2002 supreme court case on the matter, said, "There will be a little more dignity in prison and I think over time that will help reduce crime over the long term."
  • Rehabilitation is main goal (not punishment); voting helps Rehabilitation is the main goal in the prison systems of modern, liberal democracies. Punishment is seen less and less as the objective of the prison system, or at least it is less important than rehabilitation. Therefore, if offering voting rights to prisoners helps in rehabilitation, this benefit outweights any concerns surrounding it "weakening the punishment of prison".
  • Prisoner voting gives a sense of citizenship; helps reintegration 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.


  • Punishment, not rehabilitation, is the primary objective in prisons.

Taxes: Does principle of no taxation without representation apply?


  • The state is hypocritical in taxing prisoners but not giving them a vote. 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.


  • Few prisoners earn enough to be liable for taxation.
  • The right to vote does not follow from the obligation to pay taxes. 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.

Safety: Would prisoner voting maintain public safety?


  • Denying prisoners the right to vote does not protect the public. It is, therefore, an unwarranted infringement upon the human rights of prisoners.


Criminals, unfit to participate in society, are unfit to vote. UK Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said in 2001, "The courts have ruled that convicted prisoners, many of them dangerous, cannot be allowed to take part in normal society. How, therefore, can it be sensible to give them a say in how that society should be run?"[4]

Deterrence: Denying prisoners a vote does not deter crime?


  • Prospect of losing voting rights does not deter crime 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.


  • Preventing prisoner voting deters crime. 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.

Consistency: Is banning prisoner voting arbitrary?


  • 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.

International: Is there support for prisoner voting internationally?


  • The European Court of Human Rights overturned in 2001 a British law that prohibits prison inmates from voting.
  • Most liberal democracies extend voting rights to prisoners. "Voting Rights, Human Rights" New York Times. 14 Oct. 2005 - "The United States has the worst record in the democratic world when it comes to stripping convicted felons of the right to vote. Of the nearly five million people who were barred from participating in the last presidential election, for example, most, if not all, would have been free to vote if they had been citizens of any one of dozens of other nations. Many of those nations cherish the franchise so deeply that they let inmates vote from their prison cells."
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights supporters prisoner voting. "Voting Rights of Prisoners". Australian Democrats Action Plan. - "Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, part of which provides that every citizen shall have the right to vote at elections under universal suffrage without a distinction of any kind on the basis of race, sex, etc or other status."


Pro/con resources




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.


  • 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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