This summary presents key findings from the Scottish Government's consultation on prisoner voting. The consultation opened on 14 December 2018 and closed on 8 March 2019. The consultation paper is available at https://consult.gov.scot/elections/prisoner-voting/.
In total, 268 responses were received. Three duplicate responses were removed prior to analysis, leaving 265 responses to be included in the analysis. Of these, 35 were from groups or organisations and 230 from members of the public.
The consultation paper sets out four possible options for change around prisoner voting:
- Option 1: to link enfranchisement to the length of a prisoner's custodial sentence.
- Option 2: to make disenfranchisement an additional sentencing option, to be applied at the discretion of the sentencing judge.
- Option 3: to link disenfranchisement to the type of crime committed.
- Option 4: to link a prisoner's regaining the right to vote to the length of time remaining on their custodial sentence.
The consultation paper did not include options to maintain a blanket ban on prisoner voting nor to enfranchise all prisoners, setting out the Scottish Government's reasoning that the former "is not consistent with the ECHR"; and the latter "… is neither appropriate, nor necessary to ensure compliance with the ECHR".
Respondents were free to express their support for the four options and other positions alongside their views. All views submitted in response to the consultation are presented in this analysis report.
Linking prisoner's right to vote to the length of their sentence
The Scottish Government's favoured option is to link enfranchisement to the length of a prisoner's custodial sentence (Option 1). The first two questions in the consultation asked whether respondents thought prisoners' right to vote should be linked to the length of their sentence and, if not, what their preferred approach would be to extending prisoner voting rights.
Respondents to the consultation were split fairly evenly across three main positions. Around 3 in 10 thought that prisoners' right to vote should be linked to the length of their sentence (Option 1). Of the remaining respondents, those who went on to comment generally preferred one of two approaches: allowing no prisoners to vote (around 1 in 3 of all respondents); or extending the franchise to all prisoners (around 3 in 10 of all respondents).
Those who argued that nobody who is serving a prison sentence should have the right to vote often suggested that, if someone has committed a crime that is sufficiently serious to warrant a prison sentence, they have forfeited their right to have their say.
Those who thought that all prisoners should be able to vote sometimes referred to the importance of respecting the human rights of prisoners or commented that many prisoners are vulnerable members of society. There was a view that allowing prisoners to vote should help their rehabilitation by making them feel less marginalised and more a part of the community.
Appropriate length of sentence
The Scottish Government's favoured option is to extend the right to vote only to prisoners who have been sentenced to a shorter period of imprisonment.
Question 3 of the consultation paper asked those respondents who did think prisoner voting should be linked to sentence length what length of sentence would be appropriate: 6 months or less, 12 months or less, or another duration. Question 4 asked those who favoured 'another duration' to specify their preferred term length for the threshold.
Two in ten favoured a threshold of 6 months or less, a third favoured a threshold of 12 months or less, and almost half favoured 'another duration'. More of those who favoured 'another duration' suggested longer lengths of sentence for the threshold than shorter; with the most frequent suggestions being four years or less or two years or less.
Practicalities of prisoner voting
Respondents were asked whether they had any comments on the practicalities of prisoner voting. Around 1 in 3 respondents who commented on this issue proposed that a postal or proxy voting approach would be a good way forward. These respondents sometimes argued that this would help with retaining a connection to a local community, avoid distorting results in areas around prisons, or would be more practical than setting up polling stations in prisons. However, around 1 in 8 respondents did suggest they would like to see polling stations within prisons.
The importance of security or secrecy around the voting process was raised by around 1 in 6 respondents, with several suggesting a potential risk of intimidation or coercion, or that this must be avoided.
Issues associated with access to electoral information for prisoners were highlighted by around 1 in 6 respondents. Specific suggestions included that political parties could issue written campaign materials to prisoners in the same way as other to constituents, and that candidates might even engage in hustings within prisons. The need for some prisoners to be provided with practical support was also suggested, for example if they experience mental health problems or have literacy issues.
A small number of respondents, particularly Electoral Body or Group respondents, raised points concerning establishing an entitlement to vote and the registration process, and highlighted elements of the current system that would need to be modified if applied to prisoners.