Voting from behind bars – more changes on the way?

For many UK politicians, the question of votes for prisoners is politically toxic.  David Cameron said the prospect made him feel physically ill and when the issue has come up in Parliament it’s been a rare person who has ventured an opinion in favour.

But the tide could be moving in favour of the franchise for those behind bars.

UK legislation has long excluded prisoners from voting.  This blanket ban was challenged back in 2005 in Hirst vs United Kingdom with the European Court of Human Rights ruling that a whole group could not be excluded in that way.  The government however was reluctant to make any changes arguing that part of the punishment of being in prison was losing those sort of rights.  The stalemate on the issue continued until 2017 when a handful  of prisoners, those out on temporary licence, gained the franchise.  It’s worth saying here that those on remand –  in a prison but not actually convicted of anything – have always retained the right to vote, whether aware of it or not.

The number of those on temporary licence is small enough for few people to notice.  But changes in Scotland and potentially in Wales this year could open the door to more pressure to bring prisoners into the electorate.  In Scotland a Bill to, among other things,  extend voting rights to certain prisoners – those with a sentence up to 12 months –   gained royal assent in early April and is now a law.  That means the right to vote in local elections and the poll for the Scottish Parliament.  There won’t be polling stations in prisons.  Instead inmates will be registered at their old address and will make their choice by post or proxy.

In Wales another Bill on voting will be discussed in the Senedd  plenary session today (8  April).  The Welsh Government is intending to add amendments so that prisoners with sentences of up to four years could vote in Welsh local elections.

Opinions on voting for prisoners vary dramatically.  In some countries voting rights for prisoners are widespread.  This includes Ireland, which saw inmates vote for the first time in 2007, and Canada.  Some countries, such as Ukraine, set up polling stations inside prisons, sending the votes back to the prisoners’ home areas.

Yet in other parts of the world it is not just prisoners who can’t vote also but those who have served their sentence.  In the US some States ban those with felony convictions from ever voting again. (Felonies are the serious crimes)  This is being challenged with a potentially significant court case later this month.  In Florida,  voters supported a plan to allow give the vote back to a large number of ex -felons. (In the US there are often referendum type votes on policy issues at election time).  The State legislature thought differently however and came up with a plan to block the scheme.  Now a Florida Court is to rule on whether the legislature or the voters will get their way. The whole thing is all very technical,  but the upshot is that the franchise could be extended in a meaningful way.  And of course civil rights campaigners from elsewhere in the US are keen to build on any success in Florida.

Over time democracies  have generally widened the franchise.  We’ve seen changes to voting ages and we’ve seen gender, class and financial restrictions removed.  It will be interesting to see what further changes are made or resisted when it comes to those in jail.

Edge Hill University’s politics courses include a specialist module on Elections and Voting Systems as well as material about analysing democracies and constitutional change.

Voters with learning disabilities are being excluded from this election

Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

There are more than 1m people with learning disabilities in the UK and the number is expected to increase. These are people who face exclusion from society more than ever – particularly when it comes to voting. Not enough is done to enable their participation in the most basic democratic right available to British citizens. The Conversation

The charity Mencap recently found that 70% of people with a learning disability said they want to vote in the future. However, of those surveyed, 64% didn’t vote in the recent local elections, of these 60% because it was too hard to register and 17% because they were turned away from the polling station. This does not amount to being a fair way for thousands of voters who want to be part of the political processes.

People with learning disabilities are often denied paid employment only to face accusations of benefits scrounging when they seek state support. The ruthlessness of the bedroom tax, “fit to work” tests, unescapable poverty, high energy bills, cuts in care and underemployment have ensured that people with disabilities are facing terrible times like never before. So hearing their voices is critical – not least in the run up to a general election. So many of the austerity measures implemented since 2010 have affected their lives, it’s surely only right that they are given the opportunity to deliver their verdict on them.

Voting with a disability

Before the last election in 2015, the Electoral Commission made it clear that there should be no barriers to anyone with disabilities who wished to vote. In fact, any voter with a disability is entitled to request assistance to get to their local polling station and help to mark the ballot paper. They can be provided with a large print ballot paper or a tactile voting device, which is fixed to the ballot paper so the visually impaired can vote in secret.

But these are all measures to help with physical disabilities. Where are the specifics for people with learning disabilities? This is unusual considering people with learning disabilities have the same right to vote as anyone else. The Electoral Commission is clear that a lack of “mental capacity” is not a reason to prevent someone from voting. Nor is it for anyone else to decide how someone with learning disabilities should vote.

Voting can be extremely difficult for people with learning disabilities. The form to register is not accessible to all, particularly if you cannot read or write. The struggle to get to grips with political jargon and the complicated political leaflets stuffed through the door can also make people with learning disabilities feel alienated.

The stereotypical perception of people with learning disabilities is that they don’t have the capacity to understand what is happening in the world around them. Frankly, this is an old-fashioned, false perception. In fact people with learning disabilities have knowledge and experience to share about politics, real life experiences, family life, education and healthcare. It’s really more the disabling impact of wider society that ensures people with learning disabilities don’t always have the voice they need and have a right to express.

Opening up the vote

There are ways to change this. Easy read manifestos would be a good start. It would also help if they were published in good time, so that people can spend time considering the proposals the political parties put forward. There should also be more events and hustings that are accessible for people with learning disabilities.

For people with learning disabilities to have a say in their future, access to knowledge, resources and people in politics is vital. This may go some way in turning the dire life situations many of them face into something better.

Overall, for an equal and respectable vote to take place in the general election, marginalised groups, particularly people with learning disabilities, need to be able to fully engage in the political process. People with learning disabilities have knowledge, skills, experiences and perspectives to share like anyone else, and this should be reflected in a vote that effects the lives of everyone in Britain.

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.