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from The Great Debate UK:

Taking power from the powerless

-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.