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international differences in prisoner disenfranchisement

Berlin

Published on January 12, 2022 by Bethany Schmidt

What do prisoner voting rights look like in other countries? International disenfranchisement policies present a complex and highly varied picture. Chris Uggen and his colleagues (2009) examined differences in how countries exclude or include prisoners and former prisoners in the electorate. Their primary findings indicate that the simple presence of democratic governance does not guarantee that prisoners will be granted voting rights – like in the case of the United States or United Kingdom, for example. Their analysis suggests that economic development, as well as political development, is closely linked to the enfranchisement of prisoners. The map below is a visual representation of Uggen et al’s survey of international differences. The data, as you can see, is incomplete and now over a decade old – some legislation has changed since this study. Nonetheless, this offers an informative illustration that highlights how enfranchisement practices across the globe are not necessarily straightforward or predictable.

Map source: Uggen et al (2009: 62)

Further to the Uggen study, I have cobbled together a more detailed and updated list of countries that offer some prisoner voting rights. It is clear there is little uniformity when comparing regulatory legislation versus judicial discretion, or in how disenfranchisement becomes related to the offence. For some nations, like Germany, Norway, and Portugal – only very specific ‘political’ crimes that target the state or democratic order would result in a ban from voting. In other countries, like Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania, most prisoners remain enfranchised unless otherwise decided by a judge. This is similar to France, where disenfranchisement is an additional penalty to be imposed as part of the sentence only when it is viewed as proportionate to the offence.

International prisoner voting rights

Little uniformity, some judicial discretion, and sometimes related to the offence*

Albania – all prisoners

Bosnia – all prisoners (unless war crimes)

Bulgaria – up to judge

Canada – all

Croatia – all

Cyprus – most + judge

Czech Rep. – all

Denmark – all

Finland – all

France – offence related

Germany – offence related

Greece – some bans

Iceland – offence related

Ireland – all

Israel – all

Kenya – all

Latvia – all

Lithuania – all

Malta – sentence > 1yr

Macedonia – all

Montenegro – all

Netherlands – up to judge

Norway – offence related

Pakistan – all

Poland – up to judge

Portugal – offence related

Romania – most + judge

Serbia – all

Slovakia – all

South Africa – all

South Sudan – all

Spain – all

Sweden – all

Switzerland – all

Ukraine – all

These differences are not insignificant. It is evident that several countries explicitly use disenfranchisement as punishment. Ewald and Rottinghaus (2009: 12) point out that “this has important implications for how and on whom the sanction is imposed”. They go on to note that because prisoners retain the right to vote in many countries, this suggests “that in those nations, disenfranchisement is not seen as an efficacious way to accomplish either punitive or regulatory purposes”. This begs the perennial question: what exactly is accomplished when prisoners are barred from voting?

In recent years, some countries have begun to think differently about the status of prisoners and how that status relates to state-building or rebuilding and shaping their nation’s future. Two notable cases are Kenya and South Sudan, where prisoners were given the right to vote in special elections. It appears that some of the motivation and acceptance for opening up the debate has been tethered to momentous referendums. In Kenya, prisoners were first enfranchised in order to participate in their 2010 referendum to approve a new constitution and in South Sudan prisoners first gained the right to vote to determine whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent in 2011 (this is similar to what occurred in Scotland, though with less success). 

Being excluded from voting, as one prisoner explained to me, “is not just about voting, is it? It’s about not belonging – about society rejecting you”. This is acutely felt in the United States, which has some of the most severe, exclusionary, and expansive disenfranchisement policies in the world. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In most countries, voting rights are restored once a person is released from prison. In the US, however, a felony conviction can result in extended disenfranchisement even after release and sometimes permanently for life. Voting policies vary considerably by state. Only Maine and Vermont allow all prisoners to vote.

There are numerous and serious consequences associated with such restrictive practices. Disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on communities of colour. According to Chung (2021: 2), “Black Americans of voting age are nearly four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one of every 16 Black adults disenfranchised nationally”. Governance structures are likely to become less representative as more people are excluded or discouraged from participating – elections can therefore become skewed due to the absence of some voices. This really matters when local decisions are made about resource allocation, schools, housing, or business issues. Feeling unrepresented or misrepresented tends to increase citizen apathy and withdrawal from wider political processes.

This discussion raises several critical questions:

  • How do we make sense of such varied international differences? Are they arbitrary or meaningful differences?
  • Could disenfranchisement be related to levels of inequality? Might disenfranchisement perpetuate inequality?
  • What does prisoner disenfranchisement achieve?
  • Is political disenfranchisement a reasonable or proportionate extension of the deprivation of liberty?
  • Do countries with more inclusive enfranchisement policies have better outcomes (like lower reoffending rates)?

What do you think about voting rights for prisoners? Go to the poll and share your opinion.

References

  • Chung, J. (2021) Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer.
  • Ewald, A.C. and Rottinghaus, B. (eds.) (2009) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Uggen, C., Van Brakle, M. and McLaughlin, H. (2009) ‘Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement’, in A.C. Ewald and B. Rottinghaus (eds.) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective (pp. 59-75). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • For more information on prisoner voting rights in the US, refer to The Sentencing Project.

* Disclaimer: This was a well-intentioned effort to gather information not easily obtained. I have done my best to crosscheck these details. However, I admit that this is a simplified portrayal of complex legislation and may be outdated or not wholly accurate. Let me know if you have additional material related to your country.

a global view

international differences in prisoner disenfranchisement

Published on January 14, 2022 by Bethany Schmidt

What do prisoner voting rights look like in other countries? International dis/enfranchisement policies present a complex and highly varied picture. Chris Uggen and his colleagues (2009) examined differences in how countries exclude or include prisoners and former prisoners in the electorate. Their primary findings indicate that the simple presence of democratic governance does not guarantee that prisoners will be granted voting rights – like in the case of the United States or United Kingdom, for example. Their analysis suggests that economic development, as well as political development, is closely linked to the enfranchisement of prisoners. The map below is a visual representation of Uggen et al’s survey of international differences. The data, as you can see, is incomplete and now over a decade old – some legislation has changed since this study. Nonetheless, this offers an informative illustration that highlights how enfranchisement practices across the globe are not straightforward or predictable.

Map source: Uggen et al (2009: 62)

Further to the Uggen study, I have cobbled together a more detailed and updated list of countries that offer some prisoner voting rights. It is clear there is little uniformity when comparing regulatory legislation versus judicial discretion, or in how disenfranchisement becomes related to the offence. For some nations, like Germany, Norway, and Portugal – only very specific ‘political’ crimes that target the state or democratic order would result in a ban from voting. In other countries, like Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania, most prisoners remain enfranchised unless otherwise decided by a judge. This is similar to France, where disenfranchisement is an additional penalty to be imposed as part of the sentence only when it is viewed as proportionate to the offence.

A Sampling of International prisoner voting rights

Little uniformity, some judicial discretion, and sometimes related to the offence*

Albania – all prisoners

Bosnia – all prisoners (unless war crimes)

Bulgaria – up to judge

Canada – all

Croatia – all

Cyprus – most + judge

Czech Rep. – all

Denmark – all

Finland – all

France – offence related

Germany – offence related

Greece – some bans

Iceland – offence related

Ireland – all

Israel – all

Kenya – all

Latvia – all

Lithuania – all

Malta – sentence > 1yr

Macedonia – all

Montenegro – all

Netherlands – up to judge

Norway – offence related

Pakistan – all

Poland – up to judge

Portugal – offence related

Romania – most + judge

Serbia – all

Slovakia – all

South Africa – all

South Sudan – all

Spain – all

Sweden – all

Switzerland – all

Ukraine – all

These differences are not insignificant. It is evident that several countries explicitly use disenfranchisement as punishment. Ewald and Rottinghaus (2009: 12) point out that “this has important implications for how and on whom the sanction is imposed”. They go on to note that because prisoners retain the right to vote in many countries, this suggests “that in those nations, disenfranchisement is not seen as an efficacious way to accomplish either punitive or regulatory purposes”. This begs the perennial question: what exactly is accomplished when prisoners are barred from voting?

In recent years, some countries have begun to think differently about the status of prisoners and how that status relates to state-building or rebuilding and shaping their nation’s future. Two notable cases are Kenya and South Sudan, where prisoners were given the right to vote in special elections. It appears that some of the motivation and acceptance for opening up the debate has been tethered to momentous referendums. In Kenya, prisoners were first enfranchised in order to participate in their 2010 referendum to approve a new constitution and in South Sudan prisoners first gained the right to vote to determine whether the region should remain a part of Sudan or become independent in 2011 (this is similar to what occurred in Scotland, though with less success). 

Being excluded from voting, as one prisoner explained to me, “is not just about voting, is it? It’s about not belonging – about society rejecting you”. This is acutely felt in the United States, which has some of the most severe, exclusionary, and expansive disenfranchisement policies in the world. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In most countries, voting rights are restored once a person is released from prison. In the US, however, a felony conviction can result in extended disenfranchisement even after release and sometimes permanently for life. Voting policies vary considerably by state. Only Maine and Vermont allow all prisoners to vote.

There are numerous and serious consequences associated with such restrictive practices. Disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on communities of colour. According to Chung (2021: 2), “Black Americans of voting age are nearly four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one of every 16 Black adults disenfranchised nationally”. Governance structures are likely to become less representative as more people are excluded or discouraged from participating – elections can therefore become skewed due to the absence of some voices. This really matters when local decisions are made about resource allocation, schools, housing, welfare, or economic issues. Feeling unrepresented or misrepresented tends to increase citizen apathy and withdrawal from wider political processes. 

This discussion raises several critical questions:

How do we make sense of such varied international differences? Are they arbitrary or meaningful differences?

Could disenfranchisement be related to levels of inequality? Might disenfranchisement perpetuate inequality?

What does prisoner disenfranchisement achieve?

Is political disenfranchisement a reasonable or proportionate extension of the deprivation of liberty?

Do countries with more inclusive enfranchisement policies have better outcomes (like lower reoffending rates)?

What do you think about voting rights for prisoners? Go to the poll and share your opinion.

References

  • Chung, J. (2021) Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer.
  • Ewald, A.C. and Rottinghaus, B. (eds.) (2009) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Uggen, C., Van Brakle, M. and McLaughlin, H. (2009) ‘Punishment and Social Exclusion: National Differences in Prisoner Disenfranchisement’, in A.C. Ewald and B. Rottinghaus (eds.) Criminal Disenfranchisement in an International Perspective (pp. 59-75). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • For more information on prisoner voting rights in the US, refer to The Sentencing Project.

* Disclaimer: This was a well-intentioned effort to gather information not easily obtained. I have done my best to cross-check these details. However, I admit that this is a simplified portrayal of complex legislation and may be outdated or not wholly accurate. Let me know if you have additional material related to your country.