Politicians in scramble to stop prisoners voting

Queasy: Cameron said inmate enfranchisement made him ‘physically sick’ © Getty Images

A European ruling could force the UK government to give prisoners the vote. Staunchly opposed to the idea, ministers are playing for time – but are they fighting a worthwhile battle?

Something is making British people angry. It is causing outrage in tabloid papers, and has been branded ‘absurd’ by politicians. Last February, MPs voted against it by a majority of 234 to 22; David Cameron says just contemplating it makes him feel ‘physically sick’.

The cause of this fury? The possibility that prisoners could get the right to vote.

Since 2005, Britain has been locked in a battle with the European Court of Human Rights over whether convicted felons should have a democratic voice. Then, John Hirst – a man imprisoned for murdering a woman with an axe – challenged the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting. The ECHR upheld his complaint: it ruled that by barring all inmates from the electorate, the British government is breaking the European Convention on Human Rights.

After years of wrangling, a deadline was set: today, at 4pm, the government must show that it will abide by the Convention. Yet it is still stubbornly opposed to felons at the ballot box. ‘No-one should be under any doubt,’ Cameron said recently: ‘prisoners are not getting the vote under this government’.

How to get out of this awkward situation? To delay the decision, a draft bill has been drawn up, laying out three options. Prisoners could get the vote only if their sentences are less than four years, or if they are jailed for less than six months. Or, none of them could get the vote at all.

The final option is how things stand now, and is the only one that actually breaks the European Convention. There are currently only a handful of countries, including Estonia, Hungary and Russia, where all felons are forbidden from voting.

Other nations have different policies: Bulgarian prisoners sentenced to more than ten years lose the vote; in Slovakia, it is up to the judge. In Germany, all prisoners have their say, except those who have committed crimes against the state, like terrorism.

In some of these nations, prisoner disenfranchisement is about stopping cruel, immoral criminals from influencing the government. In others, it as an extra punishment: as well as being denied to the right to freedom, especially harmful criminals are denied the right to have a democratic say.

Prisoners’ dilemma

Quite right, say some. Civilised society and its political systems depend on everyone abiding by rules. Criminals who break this ‘social contract’ forfeit the right to the liberties and privileges it entails: those who break the law should not make the law.

Others argue that breaking one rule cannot instantly disqualify someone from every one of a society’s values and protections. Civil rights are not something we have to earn: a say in their nation is something that everyone – prisoners included – should have access to.

You Decide

  1. Would giving prisoners the vote help rehabilitate criminals and encourage them to become law-abiding citizens?
  2. Does breaking the law mean people forfeit the rights normally given the citizens of a society?


  1. Write a letter from the ECHR to the British government, encouraging MPs to vote in favour of giving prisoners the vote.
  2. Imagine you are an officer in a prison. Draw up a programme for educating inmates on politics and democracy.

Some People Say...

“If I killed someone, I wouldn’t expect anything from my country.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What will happen if the UK breaks the convention?
By sticking to the blanket ban, Britain would incur a fine from the ECHR, though it could decide not to pay it. The main consequences would be political: not complying with the European Court of Human Rights would dent Britain’s credibility, and inflame an already tense relationship between the UK and the rest of Europe.
And what if prisoners could vote?
Realistically, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference: there are around 85,000 prisoners in the UK, which is not enough to radically alter the course of an election. In fact, not allowing prisoners to vote could be much more costly. Hundreds of thousands of felons could sue the government for denying them their civil liberties – a lawsuit that could cost millions of pounds.

Word Watch

European Court of Human Rights
This court was established to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights, a declaration signed by all the member nations of the Council of Europe. The court receives tens of thousands of applications every year. It should not be confused with the European Court of Justice: this is the highest court of the EU, a separate body to the Council of Europe.
Draft bill
By responding with a draft bill rather than a decisive vote, the government is able to postpone its decision: the bill will have to be considered by a joint committee of politicians, which will take some time. Some pundits, however, suggest that by putting forward the possibility, the bill opens to door to the chance that some prisoners will one day be able to vote.
This means denying someone the right to vote, or rendering their vote less powerful than it should be. The word comes from the opposite of enfranchir, a French word meaning ‘to make free’. Sometimes, the word is used to describe someone who is barred from actively participating in their society.

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