There will be a debate in the House of Commons later this week on whether people sentenced to prison should have the right to vote. The issue comes up because the European Court of Human Rights has ruled against the current situation which is that they do not, and the government is under some kind of obligation to rectify its position.
Feelings run high amongst MPs on the subject. Leading Tory backbencher David Davis MP put it like this:
“There are two main issues here. First is whether or not it is moral or even decent to give the vote to rapists, violent offenders or sex offenders. The second is whether it is proper for the European court to overrule a Parliament.”
Taking the second question first, the European Court of Human Rights comes into play because the UK put its name to a convention which included the creation of a court to rule on questions of interpreting that convention. This is what the British government agreed to in 1949, in that peculiar way of the British, under the royal prerogative and without the explicit approval of parliament.
Since then, the Human Rights Act in 1998 has expressly incorporated this system into British law. Is it proper? Well, it is what parliament has voted for. Parliament could change it, but it should beware of the consequences. The notion of human rights is founded on the idea that they should be protected from the whims of politicians; they represent something fundamental about the way our society works rather than something transient or changeable. And, in a democracy, the right to vote is a fundamental human right. We need to ask serious questions about when it is suspended.
The point is that allowing politicians to edit the register of eligible voters poses risks to democracy of its own. Think of Florida in the US presidential election of 2000. The Floridian constitution takes away the right to vote from people convicted of felonies (i.e. crimes punishable by death or imprisonment), even after they have served their sentences.
The rule was introduced in the Reconstruction Era after newly-freed slaves were given the right to vote. Today, something like one third of African-American men in Florida cannot vote. This is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Similarly, Finland introduced a law at the time of the height of fascist influence in 1930 to remove people from the electoral role if suspected of membership of illegal organisations (principally the Communist party). Again, this was a politically motivated move.
I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the debate about whether prisoners in the UK should be allowed to vote is motivated by partisan considerations of the Finnish or Floridian kind, but David Davis ought to acknowledge the human rights considerations that lie behind both the right to vote and the role of the courts in defending those rights.