Leader: Parliament should decide on prisoners’ right to vote

There is currently a blanket ban on prisoners voting in Scotland. Photograph: Robert Perry
There is currently a blanket ban on prisoners voting in Scotland. Photograph: Robert Perry
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In 2013, the then US president, Barack Obama, told his Egyptian counterpart, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, that democracy was not simply about winning elections and it was important to make sure “the voices of all Egyptians are heard”. Not long afterwards, Morsi, his country’s first democratically elected leader, was deposed by the military.

Democracy is a deceptively simple idea which regularly throws up complicated issues. Morsi’s mistake may have been to assume his election meant he could do what he wanted.

Obama’s advice might also be taken on board by the Scottish Parliament as it considers whether prison inmates should be given the vote. If not everyone is allowed to take part in elections, can that be called democracy? Making sure the voices of all our citizens are heard will mean some pretty unpleasant people get to take part in the debate.

A blanket ban on all prisoners from voting covers a huge range of people – from serial killers to those jailed for failing to pay a fine for a relatively minor offence. A moment of stupidity and poverty should not see someone disenfranchised. The right to vote should be removed only in extreme circumstances.

Someone who takes a life robs their victim of that right, so it is fitting they should lose their own for the period of their sentence. There is also a case to be made that those guilty of acts of violence such as rape and serious assault should be excluded from democracy.

The Scottish Parliament is currently considering such issues and one proposal is for judges to rule on this matter when passing sentence.

As Scotland on Sunday reports today, Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Carloway, has revealed every single High Court judge in the land is opposed to the idea – and rightly so.

The power to strip someone of the right to vote can only ever lie with the highest democratic authority, in this case the Scottish Parliament, and it is MSPs, not judges, who must decide where a line is to be drawn.