Electors, Prisoners and the ECHR

There are complicated rules about who can and can’t vote, and who can and can’t be a candidate in UK elections. It also depends on the type of election, local, for Westminster or for the EU. I’ve put up a short and incomplete summary here—it’s already quite turgid enough, and I’m not going to repeat it.

There are a couple of problematic areas. EU nationals who are resident in UK can vote, as a rule, in local and EU elections, but not for Westminster elections. EU nationals may likewise be allowed to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland resident in the UK are in a rather anomalous position; they generally enjoy the same voting rights as UK citizens resident in the UK. (But UK citizens resident outside the UK don’t have a vote in the UK yet. In other countries, citizens residing elsewhere can have a vote in some elections.)

The second area is much more contentious; should prisoners have the vote? At present, in the UK, prisoners on remand, people imprisoned but who have not yet been tried and therefore are technically ‘innocent’ may vote.

Many convicted prisoners can neither vote nor be a candidate—the rules around this are quite complicated. The ECHR declared that a ‘blanket ban’ on prisoner voting (as in the UK) was unlawful; prisoners in the Republic of Ireland, and many other European states may vote. But these restrictions do raise some fundamental questions; and there has been conflict between the UK government who have wished to restrict prisoners’ rights and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)—another reason why the present Tory government wants to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British’ one.

Not that long ago, the punishment for most crimes, particularly property crime, was hanging—even for quite trivial theft. Public opinion gradually changed. The ideas of the Enlightenment in general, and Jeremy Bentham in particular informed modern prison theory. There are three main components to this:

  • Punishment, through imprisonment, the loss of liberty and rights, for wrong-doing;
  • Deterrence, to minimise reoffending, and put others off; and
  • Rehabilitation, an attempt to return convicts to a useful function in the outside world.

Rather oddly, the practical implementation of this model was based on the prior experience of the Magdalen Institutes in the early 18th century; these had been established by both concerned protestant and catholic religious worthies, starting in London and Dublin, and operating for several decades. They are not to be confused with the Magdalen Laundries, a different, punitive concept, despite the similarity in name. (The Wikipedia entry is not accurate.) The original Institutes were set up to house, sequester and rehabilitate ‘fallen women’. The Institutes chose those who they felt were capable of rehabilitation, those who were ‘penitent’—the origin of the US name for a prison, the ‘penitentiary’. The women who were taken in were clothed in fairly coarse, plain clothes; fed, taught a trade such as needlecraft and given hefty doses of Christian religiosity and morality. They were also paraded as a spectacle for (morally superior) onlookers on Sundays. At the end of three years or so, the women were released on licence, with a small amount of money, and expected to find their way in the world—the forerunner, if you like, of parole. The system wasn’t perfect, but it did work for many.

Continuing the restrictions on prisoners’ ability to vote, to take part in the political process, can be seen as an emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation.