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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Prisoner voting in Britain and the US

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The main argument in favour of allowing prisoners to vote is that we need to do everything we can to give offenders a stake in society and disenfranchising them merely adds to a general social exclusion and hinders the desistance process. But if the UK is out of step with Europe, the situation in the USA is far more extreme.

 Prisoner voting in the UK

It’s been over nine years (5 October 2005) since the European Court for Human Rights  ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting must be amended to allow at least some inmates to vote. The latest political fudge between Westminster and Strasbourg means that the issue has been postponed again and will be the responsibility of whoever wins next year’s general election to resolve.

The main argument in favour of allowing prisoners to vote is that we need to do everything we can to give offenders a stake in society and disenfranchising them merely adds to a general social exclusion and hinders the desistance process.

But if the UK is out of step with Europe, the situation in the USA is far more extreme.

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Offender voting in the USA

In the USA, it’s not just prisoners who are denied the vote, but in most states, all felons. [A felon is someone who has committed a serious crime or felony which is defined as being punishable by a year or more in prison.]

An estimated 5.85 million people (as of 2010) with a felony conviction are barred from voting in elections. Each state has its own laws on disenfranchisement. While Vermont and Maine allow felons to vote while in prison, nine other states permanently restrict certain felons from voting.

A US website specialising in promoting debate around controversial issues – procon.org – spells out the main arguments in the US:

Proponents of felon re-enfranchisement say that felons who have paid their debt to society by completing their sentences should have all of their rights and privileges restored. They argue that efforts to block ex-felons from voting are unfair, undemocratic, and politically or racially motivated.

Opponents say felon voting restrictions are consistent with other voting limitations such as age, residency, sanity, etc., and other felon restrictions such as no guns for violent offenders and no sex offenders near schools. They say that convicted felons have demonstrated poor judgement and should not be trusted with a vote.

Owing to the very high rates of incarceration in the US, prisoner voting is a party political issue.

Official figures show that at the end of 2012 a total of  6.94 million people were supervised by the U.S. adult correctional systems, which was the equivalent to about 1 in 35 U.S. adults (or 2.9 percent of the adult resident population).

About 3.94 million offenders were supervised in the community on probation and 851,200 on parole.  Around 2.3 million where incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails.

As you can see from the infographic below, whereas serving prisoners in Maine and Vermont are allowed to vote, there are eleven states where felons can lose their voting rights permanently. Indeed, for a convicted felon to vote in Mississippi, their state representative must personally author a bill re-enfranchising that individual!

 

us felons voting rights

Although we still don’t know what will happen to prisoner voting rights in the UK, it’s possible that we might end up with a similarly mixed picture as the US if Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland end up with “devo max” and decide to take a different course from the new government at Westminster.

 

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