Achieving Social Justice in 2018: Prisoner Voting Rights

Achieving Social Justice in 2018: Prisoner Voting Rights

The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts.

  • South African Constitutional Court rules on prisoners' right to vote (1999)


Howard League Scotland calls on the government to take this occasion of newly devolved powers to extend the franchise to all prisoners. The issue of prisoners voting should be central to the Electoral Reform Consultation. Extending the vote to prisoners is not primarily about criminal justice, penal reform or rehabilitation. This is about human rights, creating universal franchise in Scotland, and ensuring democratic rights for all citizens. Ultimately, this is about improving the health of our democracy and building a better Scotland.

The centenary of women’s right to vote has been a powerful and timely reminder that citizenship is not automatic, even in democratic societies. We are reminded also that when people are reduced to second class citizenship, and thus socially excluded, it is all too often the result of government policy and legislation. Democracy is about inclusion, political engagement and civic participation. When we disenfranchise specific groups of people, however, we curtail their citizenship and socially marginalise them, but we also degrade the quality of the democracy across our entire society. 

In terms of measuring the strength of our democracy and social equality, universal franchise is seen as an important proxy. Using that measure, Scotland’s democracy is worryingly limited. Of the 47 Council of Europe nations, Scotland is an outlier; having restrictions on prisoner voting we are in line only with Westminster, Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Russia. 

There is also something particularly punitive and arbitrary about denying prisoners the right to vote as opposed to all people with a conviction. This is most likely due to the belief that prison is for the most heinous criminals, but we know in fact large numbers of prisoners are not sentenced for serious or violent offences. In 2011-12, 28 per cent of shoplifting convictions, 54 per cent of housebreaking convictions, and 61 per cent of convictions for serious assault and attempted murder ended in a custodial sentence (Source: Criminal Proceedings in Scotland 2011-12). There is not a straightforward divide between the types of offences that attract imprisonment and those that do not. Therefore, HLS advocate that a custodial sentence by itself sets too low and arbitrary a threshold for the loss of such an important right as the right to vote.

Imprisonment is intended as the deprivation of liberty but in contemporary Scotland it also causes “civic death”, an archaic nineteenth century penal idea that should be resigned to history. Civic death was intended to strip a person not just of their freedom, but of many other basic rights, reducing them to a ‘non-person’. This sits at odds with the Scottish political commitment to reintegration and social justice.

Instead, by expanding the franchise the prison can be used to inculcate and encourage civic identity. This is particularly important given that the current voting ban also disproportionately impacts the most deprived and vulnerable. Prisoners tend to be the most marginalized members of our communities and by denying them a vote further ostracizes them from mainstream society. Strengthening people’s connection to society and motivating their sense of wider civic responsibility is an important aim of democracy, one that can be supported by giving prisoners the vote.

Since the devolution of electoral matters to Holyrood in the Scotland Act 2016, however, Scotland has gained the opportunity to be a leader and become the first polity in the United Kingdom to extend the franchise to convicted prisoners. England and Wales continue to deny prisoners the right to vote, despite the European Court ruling that it is unlawful. By extending the vote to all prisoners, the Scottish government can buck this trend, sending the clearest signal yet about its commitment to justice, fairness and inclusion.

HLS believes that the franchise is too limited in Scotland and calls on the Scottish government to remove this uncivilised and anti-democratic ban. Following the Irish model, voting should be extended to all prisoners, regardless of crime and sentence length and using a postal vote system. Prisons are public institutions, their character reflects the political and social values of society at large. However, from civil rights to eliminating the death penalty, history has shown us that governments can shape and encourage progressive public opinion by showing leadership on even the most divisive issues. By giving voting rights to prisoners, Scotland will make a bold statement on the international stage about the democratic character of our society. Prisoner voting is not a criminal justice matter, it is an electoral issue: in its current form it exposes a serious inequality that currently undermines Scottish democracy.




Category Penal Policy