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Why prisoner voting should be mandatory

If you end up in prison somewhere in the world, the chances are you won’t be allowed to vote. If it were up to researchers Tom Theuns and Andrei Poama, rather than disenfranchise felons, we would oblige them to vote. That would be a better way to express democratic values.

Would it be Joe Biden or Donald Trump? A staggering six million Americans were not allowed to contribute to this collective decision at the end of last year. They were serving time in jail or had been placed under house arrest, and had thus been stripped of their voting rights. And many European countries also have some form of criminal disenfranchisement. Political theorist Tom Theuns has written an article – together with his colleague Andrei Poama – arguing for the opposite: mandatory voting for prisoners.

Compulsory voting is radically different from banning voting. Why are you calling for this option?

Theuns: ‘We think it is important to show prisoners that they are part of the democratic system. By obliging them to vote, you are expressing how important you consider that democratic process to be. By allowing prisoners to vote, you are saying in effect: this is how important it is for us to hear everyone’s voice, regardless who they are. You are communicating a set of values, in the hope that in future they will continue to actively participate in democratic society.’

An American protest against prisoner disenfranchisement (image: LCCR via Flickr).

But what if a terrorist wants to blow up parliament and smash democracy? You don’t want to oblige them to vote, do you?

‘Yes, you do! By forcing them to vote, you can teach them the democratic values that they were protesting against. This strengthens their ties with society, whereas disenfranchising them cuts these ties. So I would say that the very people who oppose democracy are the people who would benefit most from mandatory voting.’

What made you want to write the article?

‘A few years ago Mary Sigler [a professor at Arizona State University, ed.] came with a new argument for restricting prisoners’ suffrage. She argued that if you want to express democratic values, you should limit prisoners’ voting rights because you then show that these values are too important to leave to criminals. But Andrei and I think this is a strange argument; how can removing someone’s most fundamental democratic right – the right to vote – convey the value of democracy?’

I imagine many people think that criminals just don’t deserve the right to vote. 

‘That’s an argument you often hear, but most legal philosophers have rejected it along with other similar ones. If you start distinguishing between who does and does not deserve the right to vote, you then compromise the fundamental principle of a democracy: one person, one vote. The right to vote is a right, not a privilege.’

But couldn’t you say that criminals knowingly step outside of society? With their bad conduct they have broken society’s rules.

‘Supporters of this argument indeed believe that criminals break a kind of social contract: a set of values that hold our society together. But criminals can never step completely outside of society because prison is part of society. A prisoner has to stick to the law, for instance, and can be arrested for crimes committed within the prison walls. Then it is only logical that this principle works in the reverse: that felons are allowed to exercise their democratic rights as a member of society.’

Tekst: Merijn van Nuland

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