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Rights behind bars
It’s a burning debate across the World – destroy the sin or the sinner? The issue of voting rights for criminals is a key aspect of that debate. The IIPM Think Tank looks at how various countries approach the issue, and why the prisoner-bashing attitude might not be so wise

On the very face of it, you may not even entertain the idea of allowing criminals to decide the political leaders of India. Yet, a common joke about our great nation remains that while lowly criminals get into prison, the really smart ones get into politics! Subsequently, allowing inmates to vote (currently India prohibits voting by inmates) may not affect the composition of our Parliament too much, considering its existing abysmal state. But their exclusion does bring human rights issues to the fore. We analyse how some major countries look at this issue.

First, the Barack country. There is no federal policy with regards to this issue in US. Different states have different laws on the voting rights of their felons. While Maine and Vermont are the only two states that have no restrictions over voting rights of felons, fourteen states including Alabama, Arizona, Florida or Iowa have disenfranchised the voting rights of inmates. The other 34 states follow a somewhat middle path. Interestingly, around 4.7 million inmates, who comprised 2.3% of the total voting age population, didn’t participate in the 2000 Presidential elections due to voting right restrictions.

A particular research on the 2000 Presidential elections by the noted American Political Science Association has revealed some interesting observations. Irrespective of their disenfranchisement, if felons had been allowed to vote, 35% would have voted in the Presidential elections, and out of those, 70% would have voted for the Democrats. Looking at past elections, evidently, this allowance would have altered the results of three close Senate results – Virginia in 1978 (John Warner [R] would have lost over Andrew Miller [D]), Kentucky in 1984 (Mitch McConnell [R] over Walter Huddleston [D]), and Kentucky again in 1998 (Jim Bunning [R] over Scotty Baesler [D]). There was hope for Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential election as well, had Florida allowed its 614,000 ex-felons to vote.

Moving on to other countries, the 17 European partners, and countries like Bosnia, Canada, South Africa and Israel allow their felons to vote without any restrictions. But courts can withdraw voting rights for up to five years if need be in Germany. Neighbouring France has similar laws, though it rarely uses them. In contrast, countries like Armenia, Brazil, Chile, India, Portugal, Russia and UK have complete restriction over voting rights of inmates. And between these extremes, Australia, France, Finland and Greece are some nations with limited restrictions over the felons’ voting rights; typically based on the length of the sentence, nature of the crime committed or the type of election.
But things have been changing recently in some US states. Connecticut and New Mexico liberalised the laws with regard to voting rights in 2001. Nevada abolished the five year post-sentence waiting period and Maryland has passed a resolution to automatically restore voting rights for one-time offenders after release. However, Utah and Massachusetts restricted voting rights of inmates while Colorado and Oregon barred federal inmates from voting. Since 1975, while 13 states have liberalised their laws, 11 have imposed further restrictions.

On March 30, 2004, the European Court of Human Rights became quite vocal on this issue. It criticized UK for having laws that bar inmates from voting; terming it as gross violation of human rights. It further ruled that “any devaluation or weakening of the right [to vote] threatens to undermine [the democratic] system and should not be lightly or casually removed.” Even influential international treaties including Article 5, section (c) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which ensure that citizens have their fundamental rights intact, favoured voting rights of inmates. A recent survey of the American people by APSA reveals that 80%, 68%, and 60% of respondents want to see restoration of voting rights of ex-felons, probationers & parolees, respectively. Over 800,000 American felons have got their voting rights back since 1997.

It’s time for India, being the world’s most populated democracy, to give explicit importance to this issue of felon voting. As we said, it may not affect our parliamentary makeover much; but relaxing restrictions may contribute in some degree, howsoever minimal, to the reformation of such inmates.

By:- Akram Hoque

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