Prisoner voting: viva the ‘civic death’ penalty?

Prisoner voting: viva the ‘civic death’ penalty?

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A majority of voters remain opposed to prisoner voting and doubt the merits, at least on face value, of counterarguments about universal enfranchisement and rehabilitation.

In December last year, the Coalition Government finally ruled out the possibility of changing current law on prisoner voting before the next General Election, which means the continuation, at least for now, of a blanket UK ban on prisoners voting in Westminster Parliamentary and European elections.

This debate has been running for some time, as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled back in 2005 that individual member countries could decide which prisoners should be denied the vote - but that a blanket ban was illegal.

Supporters of the ban say it constitutes an integral part of punishing offenders and that voting should be counted among the liberties that people forfeit when they go to jail. Some also see the ECtHR ruling as an example of unwelcome intrusion into British sovereign affairs by meddling European institutions.

Critics of the ban say prisoners are still members of society with a civic identity and fundamental human rights, which should include the democratic right to a say in how the country is governed. It also undermines the spirit of rehabilitation, they argue, by dehumanising the offender as a ‘non-person’ in ways that hark back to outdated notions of punishing prisoners with ‘civic death’, where they lost not only liberty but also property and other rights.

As part of the YouGov-Cambridge Programme (about), a representative sample of the British public was recently surveyed on attitudes to underlying questions in the debate: is voting a basic human right for all, including prisoners, and would it help with rehabilitation; or should it be counted among the privileges of a lawful life, and is disenfranchisement a useful way to punish and deter?

Fieldwork was conducted online between 25-26 January, 2015, with a total sample of 1656 British adults, and the survey was developed in collaboration with William Warr, currently a student on the Masters in Public Policy at the Cambridge POLIS Department, and his supervisor, David Howarth, who is also Director of the course.

The survey began with a split-sample experiment to compare the effect of describing the ECtHR ruling as coming from either a ‘European’ or an ‘international’ court when asking about UK law on prisoner voting. The sample was randomly divided and each sub-sample answered variants of the same question.

As results show in the table below, the difference in wording has little overall effect on responses, with nearly identical majorities saying UK law should not be changed and prisoners should not be allowed to vote – 69% European / 67% International.


"Convicted prisoners in the UK are not currently allowed to vote in elections. [The European Court/ An international court] of Human Rights has ruled that it is illegal for the UK Government to ban all prisoners from voting. Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?" (%)

European
(n=802)
International
(n=854)
UK law should be changed so that all prisoners are allowed to vote 8 9
UK law should be changed so that some prisoners serving shorter sentences are allowed to vote 16 15
UK law should not be changed and prisoners should not be allowed to vote 69 67
Don't know / None of these 7 9

Respondents were also asked how favourable they felt towards four statements, including two offered by critics of the ban and two from its supporters:

How favourable or unfavourable do you feel towards the following statements?

  • "Allowing prisoners to vote in elections will help to ‘rehabilitate’ them - in other words encourage them to live a more lawful life by making them feel more connected to society"
  • "Voting in elections is a basic human right, including for people who have been charged with committing a crime"
  • "People who have committed crimes don’t deserve a say in the outcome of elections"
  • "Not allowing prisoners to vote in elections is a useful way to punish them and deter them from re-offending"

Many respondents lean again in favour of current policy:

68% are unfavourable to the argument that prisoner voting will help to rehabilitate, including a majority of those supporting Tories, Labour and UKIP - and only just for the Lib Dems, while the strength of this feeling increases with age, with 47% unfavourable v. 40% favourable among voters aged 18-24, rising to 81% unfavourable v. 13% unfavourable among those aged 60+. (See full results)


"Allowing prisoners to vote in elections will help to ‘rehabilitate’ them - in other words encourage them to live a more lawful life by making them feel more connected to society" (%)

Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
Very favourable 5 2 9 9 1
Fairly favourable 17 13 19 32 7
TOTAL FAVOURABLE 22 15 28 41 8
Not very favourable 25 30 27 21 18
Not at all favourable 43 46 36 30 67
TOTAL NOT FAVOURABLE 68 76 63 51 85
Don’t know 10 8 9 8 6

Results show a similar trend in people’s response to the notion that voting is a basic human right, including for criminals.


"Voting in elections is a basic human right, including for people who have been charged with committing a crime" (%)

Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
Very favourable 8 2 13 19 4
Fairly favourable 14 10 20 21 6
TOTAL FAVOURABLE 22 12 33 40 10
Not very favourable 27 31 29 25 20
Not at all favourable 43 51 32 29 65
TOTAL NOT FAVOURABLE 70 82 61 54 85
Don’t know 8 5 6 7 4

In contrast, 71% are favourable to the suggestion that criminals don’t deserve a say in elections, while a notably smaller 50% overall lend themselves to the argument that disenfranchisement is a useful way to punish and deter. This latter figure also includes more of a conservative/liberal difference of opinion, with 63% of Tory and 60% of UKIP voters who are favourable to the suggestion, compared with only 45% of Labour and 31% of Lib Dem voters who tend to think the ban might help to punish and deter.


"People who have committed crimes don’t deserve a say in the outcome of elections" (%)

Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
Very favourable 48 58 39 24 74
Fairly favourable 23 25 27 27 12
TOTAL FAVOURABLE 71 83 66 51 86
Not very favourable 12 10 15 24 4
Not at all favourable 10 4 14 18 5
TOTAL NOT FAVOURABLE 22 14 29 42 9
Don’t know 7 3 4 7 5

"Not allowing prisoners to vote in elections is a useful way to punish them and deter them from re-offending"

Total Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
Very favourable 23 28 23 8 35
Fairly favourable 27 34 22 23 25
TOTAL FAVOURABLE 50 62 45 31 60
Not very favourable 18 16 21 25 19
Not at all favourable 18 11 22 29 9
TOTAL NOT FAVOURABLE 36 27 43 54 28
Don’t know 14 11 12 15 13

Set into context with the longer view, British attitudes to the question of prisoner voting seem generally stable, with previous YouGov surveys showing similar verdicts and strong majorities against prisoner voting in 2010 (see results), 2011 (see results) and 2012 (see results).

See full results


Fieldwork was conducted online between 25-26 January, 2015, with a total sample of 1656 British adults. The whole sample has been weighted to be nationally representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

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