Making a mockery of the vote
Giving prisoners the vote is neither radical nor progressive, and it will further degrade democracy.
By the end of the twentieth century, voting rights had been extended to virtually all hitherto disenfranchised groups in much of the world. In the UK, for instance, the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave working-class men and some women suffrage. And in the US, the twenty-fourth amendment to the American constitution in 1964 granted black Americans equal voting rights.
In twenty-first-century Britain, the only group of adults not permitted to cast a vote is those who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to a term in prison. Given the frequency with which the possibility of giving the incarcerated the vote is discussed in the media and in parliament, one could be forgiven for thinking that the campaign for prisoners’ voting rights lies in the same radical tradition of past struggles for suffrage. But it doesn’t. Rather, the idea of extending voting rights to those deprived of their liberty reveals the extent to which the concept of democracy has been thoroughly devalued today. Granting prisoners the vote will only add to the contemporary denigration of voting.
The issue has surfaced again following attorney general Dominic Grieve’s warning that Britain’s reputation would be damaged if it did not adhere to the European Court of Human Right’s (ECHR’s) ruling that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was a violation of their human rights. The ECHR has given Britain until the end of November to decide how to act. UK prime minister David Cameron, however, appears to be dead set on rejecting the ECHR’s ruling.
It is hardly surprising that the explicitly undemocratic ECHR is pushing for something that further degrades democracy. But it is more disheartening that supposedly liberal talking heads are also taking up the cause of the banged up. Writing in the Huffington Post, Labour MP Denis MacShane says that ‘those at liberty and those temporarily deprived thereof’ should all have the equal right to vote, as if the two are just minor distinctions.
Last year, when the issue was on the front page of newspaper websites again, one Guardian commentator claimed that there is no ‘better way of encouraging prisoners in civilising patterns of behaviour than by allowing them to participate in the political process’. In other words, the right to vote, the struggle for which compelled men and women to risk their lives facing down the repressive apparatus of the state, is today seen as a way of teaching prisoners to behave a bit better.
This attempt to extend voting to prisoners shows how little the idea of democracy is valued today. Democracy is about the ability of people to shape their own lives, to determine collectively the direction society should take. Democracy relies on the agency of the subject, the freedom of the citizen to make decisions and choose the direction they wish their life to take. The principle at the heart of democracy is the self-determination of the people.
It ought to go without saying that prisoners, by definition, do not have self-determination or freedom. For right or wrong, they have been stripped of their freedom and the ability to control their own lives. Giving prisoners – a section of the population without liberty – the vote would reveal the extent to which voting has ceased to be about the ability of citizens to shape their own lives. Granting the right to vote to prisoners represents the further trivialisation of voting and democracy.
Much of the right-wing press has opposed prison voting rights. But they have done so on the wrongheaded grounds that because inmates must have violated someone’s rights in order to be incarcerated, they have forfeited the right to vote in return. This view would mean that anyone convicted of a crime but not sentenced to time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure would also have their right to vote forfeited.
The real reason why giving the right to vote to prisoners should be opposed is that a certain group, which has been deprived of liberty and self-determination, cannot therefore enjoy democratic self-determination. It is nonsensical, and it further demeans and belittles the idea of democracy and voting. To an ever greater extent, voting is being reduced to the mere formality of ticking a box every few years.