Never Mind the Ballots, Unless...

In a startling admonition last month, the British Parliament....

December 11, 2008

big benIn a startling admonition last month, the British Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights warned the British government must give prisoners the right to vote or the next general election will be illegal under European Law. In a letter to the Ministry of Justice, the Joint Committee declared: “[T]here is a significant risk that the next general election will take place in a way that fails to comply with the convention and at least part of the prison population will be unlawfully disenfranchised.”

The Committee was responding to Hirst v. United Kingdom, a 2005 decision issued by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). John Hirst, a 54 year old British citizen, challenged the denial of his right to vote while in prison. The ECHR found the disenfranchisement of English prisoners was a clear violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination and ensures the right to free election and freedom of expression.

After a three-year silence, the Joint Committee on Human Rights is finally demanding action. In a letter to the Ministry of Justice, the Committee also stated that a legislative solution in the next parliament must be passed to enfranchise Britain’s 84,000 prisoners. This is a bold move by a body that had been dogged by accusations that it has been dragging its feet since the 2005 Hirst ruling.

It remains to be seen how the Ministry of Justice responds. Will it be swayed by the politics that have prevented this issue from progressing and risk being accused of failing to comply with the Convention? Or will it embrace the recommendations of its most influential parliamentary committee and allow its prisoners to vote? Still, the Committee’s unequivocal stance is encouraging. It seems that England is finally on the verge of changing course, and of changing company. Britain is one of only a handful of European countries that has a blanket ban denying prisoners the right to vote. Most of the others are former Eastern Bloc countries, including Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Romania.

England now has an opportunity to join a growing global trend. Just yesterday, a judge in Hong Kong ruled that a ban on voting rights breached a prisoner’s constitutional right because the government could provide no justification for the restriction. In November, India’s northern region allowed 2,500 prisoners to cast their ballots by mail for the general assembly election. In Ireland, more than half of the inmates at the highest security prison registered to vote for the August general election due to a 2006 change in law. And in August, the Chairman of the Ghanaian Electoral Commission ensured that 14,000 prisoners would be allowed to vote in the December election. The Australian Attorney General also recently began a campaign to overturn the ban preventing Australian prisoners who are serving sentences for longer than three years from voting.

With its laws disenfranchising those in prison, England is out of step with the rest of the world’s leading democracies. Except for the United States. While the British government debates ending disenfranchisement inside the prison walls, the United States continues to deny the right to vote to 4 millions of its citizens who are out of prison living, working and raising families in our communities.

In 2004, the South African Constitutional Court declared: “The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally it says that everybody counts.” It's increasingly apparent England and the United States, long viewed as the traditional seats of democracy, must now look to the rest of the world as a model.