Taking power from the powerless

February 11, 2011

-Clive Stafford Smith is the founder and director of Reprieve. The opinions expressed are his own.-

It may be the most mean-spirited thing that David Cameron has yet said since he assumed the mantle of Prime Minister: “It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison.” It makes me physically ill to hear an elected official say such a thing.

On which tablet that Moses carried down from Mount Sinai does it say that prisoners should lose the right to vote?  The European Court ruling condemning our practice does not pull its conclusion out of thin air: countries across Europe and around the world allow prisoners to vote.  Even China only takes the right away from those condemned to life in prison, or to death.  Because a prisoner is so often a person who has dwelt on the margins of society, he is the person who most needs the franchise.

Felony disenfranchisement — as the practice is called in the US — has ever been employed to take power from the powerless. When slavery was abolished, some states rushed to deprive convicts of the vote, as a proxy for race.  They similarly imposed literacy and property requirements. Only the felony rule survives, and it serves its original, racist purpose. Whites make up 74% of drug users, but only 19% of drug prisoners – nationwide, African-Americans are seven times as likely to lose their right to vote.  George W. Bush would never have been president, but for the racist removal of the vote – fully one third of black citizens cannot vote in Florida.  The rule in Britain is similarly discriminatory against minorities. Perhaps the Conservative PM was well aware of this when he made his comment.

“Frankly,” Cameron continues, “when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.” To be sure, they lose their liberty, perhaps the most precious of all rights. What further Dickensian abuses does Cameron propose? Should prisoners lose their right to petition the government for redress? Should they lose their right to be free from torture?

Cameron is pandering to the worst instincts of his party’s extreme wing, turning the issue into an anti-Europe, anti-Human Rights Act rant when the real question is how he can justify disenfranchising those who most need a political voice. It is the British who are out of step.  The courts of Canada, Israel and South Africa have agreed with the European Court that the British rule marginalises the people who most need integration.

Cameron’s disdain for the victims of this law is also hypocritical.  Various members of his cabinet have described their youthful abuse of drugs; perhaps they have now told the full truth, perhaps not.  But presumably, if only they had been caught, they would have fallen into the “revolting” class whose exercise of the franchise makes the PM so ill.

If we are to ban people from taking part in an election – which I do not support — it would make sense to link the punishment to the crime.  For example, Germany removes the right to vote only from those convicted of electoral fraud or undermining the “democratic order”.  New Zealand has a similar rule, focusing on political corruption.  Thus, it might make sense to remove the vote from a politician who abuses the trust placed in him – by seeking election and then stealing expenses money from the public purse. The disingenuousness and venality of public officials is the truly sickening thing going on here.

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