The possibility of convicted criminals voting whilst still imprisoned has got the chattering classes hot and bothered. There has been a great deal of tosh talked on both sides, from politicians searching for populist approval to those newly aware of the harmful effects of disenfranchisement on the criminal classes.
Even dear Dave feels “sick to his stomach” at the thought. Politicians, seeing an easy avenue to popularity have queued up to denounce the idea. Eurosceptics see it as a popular way of defying a European institution. Yesterday to their delight Mr Justice Langstaff ruled that judgements of the European Court of Human Rights should not trump Parliament. The population can see through the opportunism of the tribunes of the people taking the high moral ground against the one group held in almost as low esteem as politicians.
On the other side the Revd Dr Peter Selby, a former Anglican bishop of HM Prisons said: “Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose of deterrence or reform … It is making someone an ‘outlaw’, and as such has no place in expressing a civilised attitude towards those in prison.”
So woolly he almost baa’s. Disenfranchisement is not intended as deterrence or reform, it is an inevitable consequence of rejecting society. Neither does disenfranchisement make someone an “outlaw.” Going outside the law is what makes someone an outlaw. If we wish to express a civilised attitude to those in prison we do it by emphasising the duties and responsibilities of the citizen in a civil society, not by undermining the importance of society.
This, however, is in some ways a storm in a tea cup. There are so few prisoners and they are spread over such a wide area that their votes are hardly likely to make any more difference in an election than yours or mine will. The fact that a prisoner votes does not diminish my vote. Equally the argument that giving prisoners a vote will be a step on their road to rehabilitation owes more to wishful thinking than a grasp of hard reality.
In my years as a prison chaplain I never encountered a single prisoner who even mentioned a desire to vote. Conjugal visits were another matter. I strongly suspect that the 600 prisoners whose case was heard yesterday were motivated by the understandable desire for; a quick £5,000 in compensation, a way of sticking two fingers up at the system, and a way of relieving the sheer boredom of imprisonment.
In the stushie over voting rights there is, however, an interesting issue. Is being allowed to cast a vote in an election a human right?
Human rights surely are those basic rights and freedoms which all humans should be guaranteed. These could be encapsulated as the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law. Being able to vote in a mass election every few years does not enhance or diminish our humanity, it merely gives us an opportunity to comfort ourselves with the pretence that we can influence events.
It is generally held that the prisoner has already forfeited his human right to liberty by indulging in a criminal act. Although imprisonment is never approved of in Scripture as a punishment it is generally practiced throughout nations influenced by Christianity, it beats chopping off hands. Given that imprisonment restricts his much more important human right to liberty, the right to vote remains for the prisoner, what it is for the rest of us, not a human right but a civic right conffered by society.
By committing a crime the individual has broken his compact with civil society and is placed outside that society for a period. By going outside the structure which society has chosen to regulate itself the individual forfeits certain civic rights one of which is the constitutional right to a vote. Disenfranchisement is part of the consequences of a criminal act because the prisoner has chosen to reject society.