All prisoners serving custodial sentences in Scotland should be given the right to vote, Holyrood’s Equalities & Human Rights Committee argues in a report published today.
Following an inquiry at the request of Green MSP Patrick Harvie, a majority of the committee concludes that, on balance, not allowing prisoners to vote does not serve the interests of society, prisoners’ rehabilitation or democracy. Furthermore, the current blanket ban is arbitrary, and is also being changed to an extent by Westminster for UK elections following the Hirst judgment from the European Court of Human Rights.
The committee a range of evidence, both about the arguments for and against prisoner voting, as well as the experience in other jurisdictions where prisoners have been allowed to vote. Only seven of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including the UK, still have a complete ban on prisoner voting.
It noted that someone sentenced to prison in Scotland in June 2014 would have been excluded from voting five times by the end of June 2016. Someone who had committed a similar offence but who received a community sentence would have been able to vote on all five occasions. And someone given the same sentence for the same crime over many other similar two-year periods would have missed no votes because there would have been no elections.
It does not make specific recommendations as to how voting rights should be exercised, though it records evidence that experience of postal voting in the Republic of Ireland has been straightforward, and Mr Harvie's proposal that voting should relate to the prisoner's place of previous residence in the community.
Concluding, the report adds: "In taking forward this recommendation, we ask the Scottish Government to consider a plurality of views on the issue and consult as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, including victims of crimes and the general public."
The Scottish Government resisted allowing prisoners to vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
Conservatives Jamie Greene MSP and Annie Wells MSP dissented from the overall conclusion that all prisoners serving custodial sentences should have the right to vote, but welcomed wider consultation by the Scottish Government.
Committee convener Christina McKelvie MSP commented: "Prisoner voting is a fundamental issue. It strikes to the heart of questions like ‘what sort of society do we want to be’, ‘what is prison for’ and ‘what are the rights and responsibilities of a citizen’.
"After careful consideration of this issue, we as a cross-party committee have come to a majority view that the current ban should be lifted, and the right to vote be restored to all prisoners.
"We are acutely aware that prison is a place people go to be punished, and that there will be individual cases people find distasteful; but we need to think about rehabilitation, and not further excluding and alienating people from society."
Aspects of electoral law, including the franchise for Scottish Parliament and local government elections, were devolved to the Scottish Parliament by the Scotland Act 2016. Changing the voting rights at elections to the Scottish Parliament requires a "super majority" of two thirds of all MSPs.