The vote – a right or a privilege?

The vote – a right or a privilege?


It’s a topic which everyone appears to have an opinion on: should prisoners be allowed to vote?

On one hand, prisoners are individuals who have, by committing an unlawful act, segregated themselves from the general population of law-abiding citizens.  Why should they be afforded the opportunity to vote?

On the other, some individuals are imprisoned for seemingly very minor offences; should an individual serving a sentence for a public order offence be denied what many deem to be a basic human right?  What about if the individual is imprisoned for a mere few days, yet during those few days, a general election is held.  Should they be afforded an opportunity not open to those serving longer sentences for more serious crimes?

UK prisoners are currently denied voting rights.

The decision in the case of Scoppola v Italy (no.3) was handed down by the European Court of Human Rights on 22nd May 2012.  This declared that an outright ban on voting rights for prisoners was unlawful, as it was incompatible with their rights under Article 3 to the first protocol (right to free elections).  However, the Court conceded that it would be up to the country concerned to decide whether or not certain groups of offenders should be allowed to vote.  In making this decision the Court also confirmed the judgment in the case of Hirst v United Kingdom (no 2) which also held that an outright ban would be incompatible with an individual’s rights, but conceded that member states have discretion in the regulation of prisoners’ voting rights.

The UK was given six months to implement voting rights to prisoners.  That six-month period expires in less than four weeks and there is still widespread unease as to whether or how such a ruling should be implemented.  Whilst a continuing absolute ban would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, such a ban is seemingly being considered by the UK government.  It appears that the Tory party are divided on the issue, David Cameron has insisted that he will never afford prisoners a right to vote, whereas some party members believe certain prisoners should be allowed to vote.

How does the case of Scoppola impact on other EU countries?

For many countries, the Scoppola case changes little.  Eighteen countries within the EU, including Denmark, Ireland and Spain, allow all prisoners to vote.  Some countries use the discretion afforded to them, regulating either the type of election prisoners are allowed to vote in, or else differentiating between prisoners themselves, allowing some, often those serving sentences for less serious offences, to vote, whilst prohibiting others.

European countries that do not allow prisoners the right to vote include Bulgaria, Estonia and Hungary.

What next for the UK?

By 22nd November the UK will need to formally respond to the ECHR ruling…

…watch this space.


Sara is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers practising in crime.