Tag Archives: Disfranchisement

Prisoners and the Right To Vote in the UK & the USA

4 Nov

“It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.” 

– David Cameron, during Prime Ministers Question Time, November 3, 2010.

David Cameron’s position on voting rights for prisoners has the merit of consistency. Asked a question in the House of Commons some two years ago about whether the incarceration of convicted prisoners should result in a loss of inmates’ rights, he responded that voting rights for prisoners made him “physically ill”.

Since then, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK must end its ban on votes for prisoners after the government lost its ultimate appeal.

David Cameron has now pledged once again at prime minister’s questions that his coalition government would never give the prisoners the right to vote. While government now has around three weeks to decide its response to the European court ruling, the prime minister’s insistence last month that “No one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government” leaves little doubt about the substance of that official reaction.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC that “It is very clear that most people in the political world in the UK don’t want to give votes to prisoners.”

However, the scale of disenfranchisement in the United States leaves the UK looking positively benevolent. America’s entrenched commitment to mass incarceration and a punitive penal system has long been acknowledged by criminologists. While the nation is home to just 1 in 20 of the world’s population, it imprisons no less than quarter of the whole world’s prison population, with a staggering total of 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars.

One element of American penality will play a key role in the forthcoming presidential election. When voters go the polls this Tuesday, an astonishing total of 5.85 million Americans will be forbidden to exercise the fundamental democratic right to vote. They have been stripped of that right because of what it officially labelled “felon disenfranchisement” – that is, those laws which restricting voting rights for anyone convicted of a criminal offence labelled as a “felony”.

Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? 5.85 million people have no say in the
Presidential Election, due to felony disenfranchisement
(creative commons licence)

A range of state laws bar both felons and in some cases ex-felons from the right to vote. Approximately three quarters of those who are disenfranchised are no longer even behind bars, but are subject to probation supervision or on parole.

Surprisingly for a UK observer, most disenfranchised American citizens are not actually in prison. Almost half of the total number of those barred from voting have already served their full sentence, and are no longer subject to the supervision of the correctional services.

According to the Sentencing Project, ex-offenders in the eleven US states which disenfranchise people after they have served their sentences comprise almost 45 percent of the total of the population denied the right to vote. According to research by the Sentencing Project, an American criminal justice campaigning group which promoting reforms in sentencing policy:

“The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.”

In short, 1 of every 40 adults of the USA’s total population of voting age is denied the right to vote due to a current (or previous) conviction for a felony. By my calculations, if the UK was to disenfranchise offenders at a similar rate, we would deny the right to vote around 1.15 million UK offenders and ex-offenders.

The dynamic of race plays a significant role felony disenfranchisement. The harsh reality that US imprisonment rates are disproportionately higher for African American men may hardly come as a shock, considering that America was embroiled in a civil war over the continuation of  slavery until just two lifetimes ago.

African American males are imprisoned at a rate of six times that of their white counterparts. More than two million black citizens are subject to the control of the correctional system, whether in custody, on probation, or on parole. This systematic network of what has been labelled as “racialized social control” (Alexander 2011:20) also encompasses voting rights.

It is astonishing to learn that now less that 1 in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. This is a rate over four times higher than the rate for non-African Americans.

In three states (Florida, Kentucky and Virginia), more than one in five black citizens is denied the right to vote. The disproportionate representation of African Americans within the US penal system means that felony disenfranchisement has a significant impact on the representation of African Americans in the US political system.

There is some evidence that African Americans vote predominantly for Democratic candidates. In a presidential election which promises to be as tightly fought as the current one, African American disenfranchisement may significantly impact the Democratic vote.

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted description of democracy in the United States as embodying “government of the people, by the people, for the people” rings somewhat hollow to almost six million citizens denied the right to vote.

References

ALEXANDER, M. (2011) ‘The New Jim Crow’, The American Prospect, pp. 19-21, Washington: The Justice Policy Institute.

UGGEN, C., SHANNON, S. & MANZA, J. (2012), State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.

WOOD, E. (2008), Restoring the right to vote. New York: Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.