Prisoners will be able to vote for the first time in a Scottish election after the UK government's blanket ban was ruled a breach of their human rights.
The Shetland by-election will give prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less, and who would normally live on the island, the right to cast a vote despite being behind bars. It is expected to affect fewer than five people if they choose to register to vote before August 13.
The European Court of Human Rights said in 2005 that the blanket ban on prisoner voting should be lifted, but did not say all prisoners should be able to vote.
In 2017 the UK government announced a compromise, which satisfied the court, allowing a limited number of convicted prisoners the vote, but only after powers over election franchises were devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the same year.
As a result the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill was lodged in the Scottish Parliament, and, if passed, will extend the right to vote to short-term prisoners in council and Holyrood elections.
However to ensure the Shetland by-election aligns with the ECHR ruling, constitutional relations secretary, Michael Russell, will make a Remedial Order, to ensure the election is secure.
Mr Russell said: “The courts have been crystal clear – the blanket ban on prisoner voting is not compliant with the ECHR. Whether people agree with that or oppose it, one thing everyone should agree on is that elections must be compliant with the law.
“And, unlike the UK Government, who did not rectify this issue for more than a decade, the Scottish Government is legally obliged under the Scotland Act to comply with the ECHR.
“The timing of the by-election means action must be taken now, on a temporary basis, to ensure Scotland does not breach the ECHR. The Order will then be repealed prior to the full parliamentary debate on legislation to put in place a long-term solution to the issue."
He added: “The resignation of the sitting Shetland MSP means that we have to move quickly to bring the resulting by-election into line with the law. This is a pragmatic, short-term solution, and our intention is that Bill currently before Parliament, if passed, will provide the longer-term solution.”
But the decision was slammed by the Scottish Conservatives, who said it “opens the door” for inmates to cast their ballot more widely in future. The party's equalities spokeswoman Annie Wells said: “Although there will be little impact on this particular election, this ill-judged move opens the door for prisoner voting more generally.
“It sets the all-important precedent, and means the SNP will be enabling dangerous criminals to vote in future elections. That’s not what the people of Scotland want to see, and not what prisoners deserve.
“The fact this is being done without any proper debate or consultation is particularly unacceptable. Victims of crime will be furious that people guilty of assault, domestic violence and serious drugs offences will be able to influence our political future.”
The by-election has been triggered by the resignation of long-serving Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, who is taking up a new role with the Scottish Rugby Union.
His party's justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said: “Liberal Democrats have been calling for changes to prisoner voting rules for years. The existing blanket ban on prisoner votes flouts international law and impedes rehabilitation.
“We think it’s important to build civic responsibility among the prison population. This is a fair and progressive change.”
The seat was held at the last Holyrood elections by Mr Scott who won 67.4 per cent of the vote while the SNP won 23.1 per cent. Ten candidates are standing with the Liberal Democrats represented by Shetland Islands Council depute convener Beatrice Wishart.
Fellow councillor Johan Adamson is Labour's candidate while Brydon Goodlad and Tom Wills are the respective Scottish Conservatives and SNP candidates. Also standing are Stuart Martin for Ukip; three independent candidates in Michael Stout, Peter Tait and Ryan Thomson; and Ian Scott who has no party listed.