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Debate: Prisoners right to vote

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

Background and context

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.

Contents

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Democracy: Does prisoner voting uphold democratic practices?

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Yes

  • 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]
  • Prisoners should have very right to make a decision based on their own morals . Part of the freedom of this country is the freedom to choose based on personal moral ethics. Several debates have been held discussing whether or not people should take a test to decide whether or not they are aware enough of the issues to make their choice. However this debate has been won a hundred times over based on the fact that people have the right to make decisions based on their own reasoning. If that reasoning is sufficient is a matter of personal opinion, something that has no place in our legal system.


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No

  • Prisoner voting would demean the entire electoral system. The electoral system is based on a society's collective sense of respect for the law, citizenship, and democratic processes. These are precisely the values that felons have flaunted. In this way, offering them a right to vote demeans the entire spirit of the electoral system.
  • Felons have bad judgement, should not help elect reps Tucker Carlson, MSNBC News Commentator. "The Situation with Tucker Carlson". June 26, 2006. - "Now why would we, as citizens, as non-felon citizens, want felons helping to pick our representatives. If you're a convicted felon, convicted of a violent crime, you have bad judgment. Why do we want people with that judgment picking our representatives?"[4]


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

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Yes

Voting Rights of Prisoners. Australian Democrats Action Plan. - "Prisoners do not lose all their rights in prison, only some of them. Other rights are inalianable and are guaranteed by international and domestic law."
National Voter Registration Act of 1993. U.S. Congress. October, 1998 - "The Congress finds that the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right."[5]
  • 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.
  • We cannot assume that they do not wish to vote. While many prisoners may not wish to vote we cannot assume this goes for the entire prisoner population. It is their right to have the option of voting and the choice of whether or not to use it.


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No

  • Voting is a privilege (not right) that criminals fairly lose. The clearest indication that voting is a privilege 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 privileges.
  • 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.
  • Only qualified citizens have a right to vote Alexander v Mineta, U.S. Supreme Court. October 16, 2000. - "The Equal Protection Clause does not protect the right of all citizens to vote, but rather the right of all qualified citizens to vote."[6]
  • Prisoners are unfit for society so 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?"[7]
  • 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 privileges 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.


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Discrimination: Does depriving prisoners of a vote discriminate?

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Yes

But it did. Slavery was not simply a Southern affair. Neither were the laws used to keep former slaves and their descendants from the polls. Today, New York’s laws depriving some people with felony convictions of their right to vote serve as an ongoing, painful reminder of that legacy."


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No

  • Depriving prisoner vote "disenfranchises" only because more minorities are felons Edward Feser, Ph.D. Instructor, Pasadena City College. "Should Felons Vote?". City Journal. Spring, 2005. - "The frequently heard charge is that disenfranchising felons is racist because the felon population is disproportionately black. But the mere fact that blacks make up a lopsided percentage of the nation's prison population doesn't prove that racism is to blame. Is the mostly male population of the prisons evidence of reverse sexism? Of course not: men commit the vast majority of serious crimes - a fact no one would dispute - and that's why there are lots more of them than women behind bars. Regrettably, blacks also commit a disproportionate number of felonies, as victim surveys show. In any case, a felon either deserves his punishment or not, whatever his race. If he does, it may also be that he deserves disenfranchisement. His race, in both cases, is irrelevant."[8]


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

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Yes

  • 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.


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No

  • 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.


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Rehabilitation: Does prisoner voting help in rehabilitation?

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Yes

  • 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".
  • Voting offers prisoners a sense of citizenship, 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.


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No

  • Prisoner voting undermines punishment and so rehabilitation. 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.
  • Punishment, not rehabilitation, is the objective in prisons.


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Taxes: Does principle of no taxation without representation apply?

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Yes

  • 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.


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No

  • 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.


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Safety: Would prisoner voting maintain public safety?

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Yes

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



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No

  • Criminals, dangerous to society, are dangerous with 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?"[9]


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Deterrence: Denying prisoners a vote does not deter crime?

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Yes

  • 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. Other factors include the fact that those that commit crimes are less likely to vote in the first place, so it's not really a punishment to deprive them of a vote. Second, the low visibility of the fact that imprisonment entails the loss of voting rights means that few will even consider that their crime will lead to this consequence.


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No

  • Denying felons a vote sends a strong message, 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.


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Consistency: Is banning prisoner voting arbitrary?

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Yes

  • 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.


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No

  • 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.


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US law: Are voting rights for prisoners supported by US law?

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Yes

  • Prisoners are still citizens.It is common fact among government that the right to vote belongs to all legal aged citizens. While the opposing side may argue that criminals are not citizens one should remember that we continue to give them the right to an attorney and other such obvious inalienable rights. By doing this we recognize they are still citizens. And citizens have the right to vote.


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No

  • 14th amendment permits denying voting rights to criminals Alex Kozinski, J.D. , Circuit Judge, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Dissent (PDF) in Farrakhan v. State of Washington. February 24, 2006 - "Unlike any other voting qualification, felon disenfranchisement laws are explicitly endorsed by the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. [...] They are presumptively constitutional. Only a narrow subset of them - those enacted with an invidious, racially discriminatory purpose - is unconstitutional."


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International: Is there support for prisoner voting internationally?

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Yes

  • 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."


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No

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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No


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Pro/con videos

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Yes

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No

References:

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.

Motions

  • 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

In legislation, policy, and the world

See also

External links and resources:

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