Can prisoners vote?
In the United States whole classes of people are barred from voting because they are ‘convicted felons’ – meaning they have served time in prison. The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution allows States to disenfranchise people with criminal records.
Although some US States have dropped bans on felons voting once they are released from prison, most US States still restrict voting rights for felons. In twelve States felons are banned from voting for the rest of their lives.
Virginia recently dropped its lifetime ban, allowing 200,000 felons to vote for the first time. It’s highly political, as the ban affects black and Hispanic people more than other sectors of American society, and they tend to vote Democrat. It’s in the interests of Republican-run states to keep the lifetime ban.
In the 2012 US election six million people were not allowed to vote as they were felons – 2.5 per cent of all voters and 8 per cent of the potential black vote.
In Britain prisoners on serious criminal convictions are barred from voting. All prisoners can vote in Ireland, Europe, Japan, Canada and New Zealand – unless doing time for treason or terrorism.
In Australia prisoners serving three years or more are barred from voting, but can vote once they’re released.
“Voting is a basic human right, something our forebears fought for, and to disenfranchise a person for any reason is a major step,” said Nathan Luke, solicitor at Stacks Law Firm.
“Should someone lose the right to participate in the democratic process because they’ve committed a crime? Or should they be allowed to participate in the democratic process because they will rejoin society once they complete their sentence?”
After Australia’s Federation in 1901 prisoners serving a sentence of more than one year were denied the right to vote. In 1983 the voting ban was relaxed to inmates serving more than five years.
In 2006 the Howard government banned all prisoners from voting. That was overturned by the High Court in 2007.
“The judges ruled the right to vote was protected under the constitution, but not so for serious crimes. They decided prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more could not vote, but they could vote once they complete their sentence,” Mr Luke said.
The irony is that if a prisoner fails to vote in a federal election they commit another crime. Voting in Australia is compulsory. Fail to vote without good reason and the fine is $20. If the matter is dealt with in court the fine can be $170 plus court costs, and a criminal conviction may be recorded against you.