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Can Prisoners Vote?

Voting rights for prisoners is a controversial topic that has sparked much debate. Some argue that voting is an inalienable right that should not be taken away, even from incarcerated people. Others claim that those who commit crimes forfeit their right to have a say in elections. This article will examine the arguments on both sides, look at the policies in different countries, and analyze the potential impacts of allowing prisoners to vote.

Arguments For Prisoner Voting Rights

Promotes Rehabilitation and Reintegration

One of the main arguments in favor of prisoner voting rights is that it can help promote rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society after release.

Participating in voting could instill a sense of community and citizenship in prisoners. It sends the message that they are still members of society with a stake in government policies. This may motivate them to become law-abiding citizens upon release.

Research has shown potential links between disenfranchisement policies and higher rates of recidivism. Restoring voting rights could improve outcomes and reduce re-offending.

Upholds Principles of Universal Suffrage

Many proponents emphasize that voting is a basic human right that should apply to all citizens regardless of their circumstances.

Imprisonment is meant to restrict liberty, not basic rights. Taking away the right to vote conflicts with principles of universal suffrage and political equality.

Prisoners are subject to policies made by elected officials so they should have a voice in choosing them. Their interests are affected by the outcomes of elections.

Potential to Improve Conditions for Incarcerated People

Allowing prisoners to vote could incentivize politicians to enact policies that improve conditions in prisons and support re-entry programs.

If prisoners constituted a sizable voting bloc, elected officials might be more inclined to allocate resources and create policies that address their needs, such as education, job training, healthcare, etc.

This could create positive reforms in the criminal justice system and correctional facilities. Politicians may be less willing to neglect prisoners’ concerns if they depended on their votes to get elected.

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Challenges Misconceptions About Prisoners

Opponents often generalize prisoners as intrinsically bad, immoral people who should be excluded from society. Granting voting rights could help dispel this misconception.

Many prisoners made mistakes but are capable of being responsible citizens. Participating in elections allows them to engage in civic duties like everyone else. It reminds society of their humanity and potential for positive change.

Upholds a Democratic Right

Some point out that many democratic rights are restricted in prison, like freedom of movement and association. However, voting remains one of the few civil liberties prisoners can still exercise.

Revoking the right to vote is arguably the most egregious form of “civil death” inflicted on prisoners. Voting preserves one small way they can retain their identity as citizens while incarcerated.

Arguments Against Prisoner Voting Rights

Undermines Punishment and Justice

A common argument against prisoner voting contends that it undermines the punishment and justice function of imprisonment.

Criminals broke society’s rules and violated others’ rights. Imprisonment and its associated penalties are meant to serve as consequences for those transgressions.

Allowing prisoners to participate in making the very laws they broke defies this principle of justice. It blurs the line between punishment and freedom.

Violent Criminals Should Forfeit Rights

Many believe there are certain crimes so egregious that those who commit them should automatically forfeit civic participation rights like voting.

For example, violent offenders like murderers and rapists have demonstrated blatant disregard for other citizens’ fundamental rights. Therefore, they relinquish their own right to have a say in government policies.

Granting voting rights means violent criminals help shape laws governing society. This is unacceptable to most people.

Risk of Electing Pro-Criminal Officials

Some warn that prisoners may have specific policy interests which conflict with law and order.

Prisoners could elect legislators who pass laws favoring criminals over victims and law enforcement. For instance, repealing three-strikes laws or restrictions on parole.

Enfranchising prisoners risks policies catering to criminals over law-abiding citizens. This threatens public safety and confidence in the electoral process.

Complicates Election Administration

Administering elections involving incarcerated people creates additional complications for officials.

Processing and transporting ballots to and from prisons securely is challenging. Prisoner voter turnout is extremely low, so the costs may outweigh the benefits.

Prisoner mobility between facilities further complicates voter registration and district assignment for absentee ballots. This administrative burden undercuts arguments that enfranchising prisoners is simple or easy to implement.

Slippery Slope to Enfranchising More

Some detractors argue that allowing prisoners to vote will set a precedent leading to pressure to expand voting rights further.

Advocacy groups may use prisoner voting as leverage to call for letting other people like non-citizen residents or even youth under 18 vote. This could devalue and diminish the significance of voting rights.

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There is also concern it signals more tolerance of rule-breaking over time. Granting prisoners voting rights could be a slippery slope towards normalizing criminal behavior in society’s eyes.

Undermines Authority and Order in Prisons

Another contention is that prisoner voting could undermine administrators’ authority within correctional facilities.

If prisoners become focused on elections and political issues, it could foster unrest or disrupt order. Prisoners may believe voting empowers them to make demands on administrators who depend on their compliant behavior.

This risks complicating officials’ ability to maintain control and administer prisons safely and effectively.

Prisoner Voting Policies in Different Countries

United States

The U.S. has a decentralized approach which varies between states:

  • 2 states (Vermont and Maine) allow prisoners to vote without restrictions
  • 16 states and Washington D.C. restore voting rights upon release
  • 21 states only disenfranchise felons during incarceration
  • 11 states disenfranchise felons post-sentence after release

This disjointed policy results from debates over reconciling voting rights, punishment goals, and state autonomy.


Canada also has a decentralized policy:

  • 2 provinces have no restrictions on prisoner voting (Alberta and Nova Scotia)
  • Other provinces restrict voting rights only during incarceration

Voting is considered a fundamental right preserved even during imprisonment. With some exceptions, most prisoners can vote by mail-in ballots.

United Kingdom

The UK had a blanket ban on prisoners voting until 2005 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled it violated human rights laws. Now:

  • Prisoners detained for contempt of court can vote by proxy
  • Most other prisoners are banned from voting
  • The ruling sparked debate but no definitive legislative changes yet


Germany has few restrictions on prisoner voting:

  • Most prisoners can vote absentee in their home district
  • Only prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses can be barred from voting

This aligns with their focus on normalization and reintegration into society.


Australia has taken steps to expand prisoner voting recently:

  • In 2020, legislation passed requiring prisons to facilitate voting by inmates without adequate access
  • Rules vary between different territories, but most prisoners can now participate

South Africa

South Africa explicitly grants all prisoners the right to vote.

The constitution says the right cannot be denied based on “race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, religion, conscience, belief, culture or language.”

This stems from their history of using disenfranchisement to enforce apartheid.

Key Impacts of Prisoner Voting Policies

On Recidivism Rates

Studies on the impact of inmate voting restrictions on recidivism have shown mixed results:

Manza, Uggen (2004)States that never rescind voting rights saw lowest recidivism rates
Hamilton-Smith, Vogel (2012)No link between voting restrictions and recidivism found
Haselswerdt (2009)Marginal correlation between voting rights restoration and reduced recidivism

More research is needed to isolate this policy’s impact on re-offending rates.

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On Public Perception

Surveys show the public remains largely opposed to prisoners retaining voting rights:

Poll% Opposed to Prisoner Voting
YouGov 202163%
Gallup 202060%
Pew Research Center 201663%

However, views differ based on demographics like age, race, and political affiliation.

On Election Outcomes

Allowing inmates to vote has not impacted election results in jurisdictions where it is permitted:

  • Prisoner turnout is extremely low (around 10-20% of the eligible prison population)
  • Their voting power is diluted across different districts
  • No evidence suggests the policy has benefited “pro-criminal” candidates

On Legal Challenges

Litigation and debate over prisoner voting continues in many countries:

  • U.S. states still face legal disputes over discrepant policies
  • The UK continues debating compliance with human rights rulings
  • Australia has seen challenges to uneven territorial laws

Resolving these issues remains complex given differing legal systems and perspectives on rights.

Key Questions

Should All Prisoners Retain Voting Rights?

Blanket policies are simpler to administer but perhaps unreasonable. Categorically denying or allowing voting for all prisoners irrespective of crime oversimplifies a complex issue. More targeted policies based on sentence length or crime type could be feasible compromises.

Does Enfranchisement Undermine “Tough on Crime” Policies?

Some argue politicians may soften their stances on criminal justice issues if courting the prisoner vote. However, there are few signs this is happening in practice in jurisdictions with prisoner voting. The evidence does not clearly validate concerns about undermining law enforcement or victims’ interests.

Do Prisoners Want to Vote?

While many prisoners express an interest in retaining voting rights, turnout remains very low where allowed. More study is needed on prisoners’ motivations and barriers to participation. Officials should consider ways to facilitate access while also ensuring security if enabling the vote.

Should Felons Lose Voting Rights After Release?

Banning released felons from voting is hard to justify if punishment is served. However, the rights of victims and community safety are also valid concerns. Policymakers must weigh these complex factors in crafting post-release disenfranchisement rules.


In conclusion, the issue of prisoner voting involves balancing complex factors. There are reasonable arguments on both sides stemming from differing philosophies on rights, punishment, and rehabilitation. Allowing prisoners to vote does not necessarily compromise law and order, but nor is it a panacea for reintegration or criminal justice reform. The evidence remains equivocal on impacts like recidivism. Blanket nationwide policies are difficult given variations between jurisdictions. Potential compromises could include targeted approaches based on sentence length or crime type, or restoring voting rights upon release. More jurisdictions are erring towards greater prisoner enfranchisement, but public opinion remains largely opposed. Debates will likely continue as policymakers navigate between rights, public attitudes, and practical electoral administration issues involving prison populations.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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