Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Hung Voter: a history of prisoners' rights

The Representation of the People Act 1969 introduced a specific provision that ‘convicted persons’ are legally incapable of voting during the time they spend in prison. But should prisoners want to claim the right to vote anyway? TheBigRetort takes a judicious step back.

The denial of prisoner voting rights in Great Britain dates back to the Forfeiture Act 1870. Linked to the notion of “civic death‟, the Act literally executed the human rights of the convicted. Now seen by some modern liberal thinkers as archaic and uncivilised, they argue that citizens who have erred should not have their human rights excoriated.
In the other camp sits the hard-leaning saints of humanity the Victorian ‘victim’ mindset; which also wants its pound of flesh, and some.

Prison to the VM represents punishment 'only'; among which is the loss of civil rights. Part and parcel of that denial of rights is the right to vote on how civilisation itself is governed. After all isn’t the right to vote really a privilege of citizenship - and does not that citizenship bring with it certain duties? Duties which the offender has failed to fulfil by his or her actions. Chief amongst these: thou must not do foul deeds. This is why the right to vote is denied the prisoner.

But perhaps we misunderstand why such rights were denied in the first place... so let's take a little gander.

In 1832, men who owned land valued at not less than a tenner were allowed to vote. But following the Act of 1870 at common law a convicted traitor and felon forfeited these lands; the denial of a prisoner’s right to vote, therefore, is really a hangover from landowners who faced what was a property denial punishment.
We now live in the 21st Century. But we have lost sight of how it came to pass that prisoners were denied the right to vote in the first place.
But as we move forward from the 19th century we should do so knowing that it was the loss of property rights and not the vote itself that denied the right to vote. No property no vote: simple.

If only that were truly so...

After the Criminal Law Act 1967 amended the 1870 Act, the Representation of the People Act 1969 introduced a specific provision: convicted persons whilst detained were legally incapable of voting - property or not.
This was later consolidated in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Whilst convicted prisoners (in custody) would not be entitled to vote, prisoners on remand were exempt from this electoral banishment.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 brought about changes to the general voter registration requirements and this further enshrined the loss of the right to vote for prisoners.

Even this action is misunderstood when it comes to the prisoner’s right to vote. Once registered, an elector remained on the roll almost indefinitely (unless they moved to a different place), as it was not annually revised. Under the 1918 Act however, new arrangements were put in place to revise the register twice a year following ‘house to house’ and other inquiries. Electors generally had to be able to prove six months residence - which they could not do if they were in prison.

The Act then enforced the denial of the prisoner’s right to vote simply due to the difficulty in recording such persons in prison; and something, incidentally, in a technological age, that we are now able to do. The denial of the right of the prisoner to vote is therefore largely misunderstood by government and the judgemental Victorian mindset electorate. It was the loss of home ownership status that denied the right and not the criminal act or punishment that followed.

But come to think of it: do prisoners really actually want the right to vote anyway? Given that a convicted persons address would be “care of HMP Wandsworth (or some other)” wouldn’t such an address be an indelible stain on a convicted person’s character - for all judgemental persons to see for good - or bad, as it happens? Any persons duly recorded would literally be placing themselves in the court of common gossip via the People’s PNC - for life.

No doubt ‘convict outing’ would infringe the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and the Data protections Act. It would then lead to compensation claims by ex-offenders into the bargain.  Perhaps, the right to have X mark the spot at the polls even inside HMP is a first step, albeit to both offender and non-offender a very cautious one indeed.