Prisoner voting backed by a majority of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee

14.05.2018

Prisoners serving custodial sentences should be given the right to vote according to Holyrood’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee.

The Committee started considering the issue of prisoner voting last September, after receiving a letter on the issue from Patrick Harvie MSP. It has since received a range of evidence, both about the arguments for and against prisoner voting, as well as the experience in other jurisdictions where prisoners have been allowed to vote.

A majority of the Committee felt that, on balance, not allowing prisoners to vote, did not serve the interests of society, prisoners’ rehabilitation or democracy. Furthermore, it found that the current blanket ban is arbitrary, and is also being changed to an extent by Westminster for UK elections following the Hirst judgement from the European Court of Human Rights.

Speaking as the report is published, Committee Convener, Christina McKelvie MSP, said:

“Prisoner voting is a fundamental issue. It strikes to the heart of questions like ‘what sort of society do we want to be’, ‘what is prison for’ and ‘what are the rights and responsibilities of a citizen’.

“After careful consideration of this issue, we as a cross-party Committee have come to a majority view that the current ban should be lifted, and the right to vote be restored to all prisoners.

“We are acutely aware that prison is a place people go to be punished, and that there will be individual cases people find distasteful; but we need to think about rehabilitation, and not further excluding and alienating people from society.”

The Committee also heard evidence that the current ban is illogical – someone sentenced to prison in Scotland in June 2014 would have been excluded from voting five times by the end of June 2016. Someone who had committed a similar offence but who received a community sentence would have been able to vote on all five occasions. And someone given the same sentence for the same crime over many other similar two-year periods would have missed no votes because there would have been no elections.

Background

Jamie Greene MSP and Annie Wells MSP dissented from the overall conclusion that all prisoners serving custodial sentences should have the right to vote but welcomed wider consultation by the Scottish Government.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Aspects of electoral law, including the franchise for Scottish Parliament and Local Government elections, were devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 2016.

The Scotland Act 2016 also introduced so-called ‘super-majorities’ for passing Bills relating to protected subject-matters. Super majorities require at least two-thirds of the total number of seats of the Parliament to vote in favour of it to pass (i.e. not just 2/3 of Members voting on a particular day).

Protected subject matters are:

(a) the persons entitled to vote as electors at an election for membership of the Parliament,

(b) the system by which members of the Parliament are returned,

(c) the number of constituencies, regions or any equivalent electoral area, and

(d) the number of members to be returned for each constituency, region or equivalent electoral area.

Of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, it appears that, in addition to the UK, the only other countries which have a blanket ban on prisoner voting are: Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary and Russia.

It seems that countries following a ‘partial ban’ approach to prisoner voting (often giving, for instance, a judge discretion) include: the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Poland, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia.

States which have no restrictions or virtually no restrictions on prisoner voting include: Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

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