Quite a few people who I like and respect have spoken to me recently saying something along the lines of 'Can you believe they are telling us we should give prisoners the vote? Why the hell should prisoners have the vote?' These people seem surprised when I tell them that for me their argument does not stand up. Obviously prisoners should have the vote. I think it is a travesty that they can't vote. Every adult should be able to vote.
This is not because I feel sorry for mass murderers or because I think they would have something useful to contribute to the political landscape. It is because I believe that the right to vote for your government is a basic human right. We are a civilised society and when we put someone in prison we still give them food and water, so we should give them the vote as well.
In the UK we are quick to condemn countries who have corrupt democracies. We are shocked as we watch Putin transport voters around different villages to vote multiple times, we listen in disbelief to tales of foreign elections where voters are bullied, political opponents are shot, votes are public, voting slips are confiscated and filled in by someone else. But by removing this right from a section of society I believe we are ourselves failing in our responsibility to operate a fair and open democracy.
If it is not an indelible part of the fabric of our democracy that every adult has the right to vote that cannot be taken away from them, then it follows that we are saying that denying someone that right is ok under certain circumstances. And that's something that I don't want to be a part of our law. It is not ok to deny someone the vote because they are a woman, or because they are gay or because they don't speak very good English or because they are mentally or physically disabled. It is not ok to deny someone the vote because they are racist and want to vote for the BNP. It is not ok to deny someone the vote because they are an alcoholic. It is not ok to deny someone the vote because they are in prison. It is not ok to deny someone the vote.
Quite apart from the fact that basic human rights should not be removed as a punishment which I categorise as totally bleeding obvious, I simply can't hear any sensible counter argument. Removing the vote from people as a punishment benefits no one. The only two arguments people have against giving prisoners the vote seem to be 'they don't deserve the vote because they have committed a crime' and 'I don't want Europe telling me what to do.' The former assumes that removing the vote (a basic human right) from prisoners is approximately equal to not giving them a PlayStation (a luxury item). It also assumes that the prisoners will see the removal of the vote as a main part of their punishment and it will therefore presumably act as some kind of deterrent. Really? Does anyone seriously think "Oh I was thinking about burgling this house but I might lose my right to vote"? I doubt it. On the contrary I would expect there to be some happy side effects to prisoners being given the vote, they will at least feel like a part of society and engaged with the people making the laws. Personally I'd like to see if giving them the vote decreases, even if only slightly, the likelihood of them re-offending when released. You might think that sounds like a long shot but I don't see any chance of it increasing the risk. And isn't prison supposed to rehabilitate people? Something some of us seem to forget in our rush to grab the nearest pitchfork.
The second Europhobic argument is a knee-jerk reaction which UK tabloid readers seem to have to every piece of legislation that comes out of Europe. Surprisingly, on this occasion, I agree. I don't want Europe 'coming over here' and telling us to give the vote to prisoners. Frankly, it is embarrassing. I want us to be the country who goes to other countries and says 'Gosh, do you really deny the right to vote to a section of your population? That's a bit backwards of you.' (Probably in a more polite way than that, we are British after all.)
Call me idealistic all you like. You can even call me naïve. But I don't want the country I live in to be one which opts out of giving people human rights. I want it to be a country with a democratic system that is the envy of the world, where every adult has the right to a vote. I want us to be a country that gives everyone the vote not because we have been told to do it, like a bully in the playground grudgingly handing the wimpy kid back his lunch money, but because it is the right, ethical and moral thing to do. And before you say it, yes the view is nicer from the moral high ground. Come join me, won't you?
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