According to the no-doubt-honourable-Tory-MP Philip Davies, “It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”
With my tongue slightly-but-not-fully in my cheek, I’m going to argue that not only should prisoners get the vote, they should get more votes than non-prisoners.
Let’s grant, with Mr.Davies, that ‘the whole point of going to prison is you lose your liberty’ – nevertheless, this lost liberty is very different from the right to vote. The freedom to walk around wherever you want is, plausibly, a ‘natural’ liberty. But the liberty to submit a vote in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is clearly not a natural liberty, because you need someone to have first invented said Kingdom.
Instead, the right to vote, (if it is really a personal right at all (which, as I discussed on Wednesday, you need not think it is)), is more like a certificate that you get for being the subject of a certain state, a ‘receipt’ for the loss of liberty that entails.
The idea runs: if someone just started telling you what to do, and put you in a special cage if you ignored them, they’d just be a tyrnnous dickhead, even if they had been doing so for ages. On the other hand, if someone makes a request, you think about it, accept, and do it, that’s fine. And voting is what shifts a government from being more like the former to being more like the latter.
Anyway, what I’m driving at is – if the vote is there to legitimate the state’s power over citizens, then the more harshly they enforce that power, the more pressing and important is the need for legitimation.
Especially because a lot of presumption goes on – people who haven’t voted yet, or who refuse to vote, etc. are presumed to nevertheless consent to being ruled. And it becomes less and less reasonable to presume consent when the balance of costs and benefits shifts towards the negative.
So it seems to me that not only should prisoners be given the vote, they should each get, perhaps, a number of votes at each election equal to the length of their sentence (meaning that, since a longer sentence covers more elections, total votes will increase with the square of sentence-length).
Now, this might not apply to all prisoners. In particular, if a convincing case can be made that the state, in imprisoning this person, has done no more than what a private individual would have had the right to do, then the argument might fail. This might work for many violent crimes – if you kill someone I know, it seems like I’m within my rights to make you no longer a threat, by whatever means necessary.
But are most crimes like that? Or do most crimes involve matters – like property, narcotics, traffic, land use, etc. – where the law has chosen to make some things legal and other illegal, not without any basis but without every illegal act having previously been an immoral act, and every legal act having previously been a moral one? That’s an interesting question.
Another way that the argument might fail, of course, is if voting has nothing to do with the legitimacy of government, and is simply a pragmatic measure to promote stability or prevent idiocy. That would make sense especially if generally the people who benefitted most from a given social order had the most freedom to alter or escape it, while those who suffer most from it had the least, rather than vice versa.
But that would seem to lead to an odd conclusion: an overtly undemocratic government, installed through military coup or whatever, is just as legitimate as an elected one (other things being equal – i.e. equally efficient, equally corrupt, equally good laws, etc.), and that can’t be true, can it?