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September 28, 2009

The Prisoner’s Dilemma
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:00 PM *

One of the areas of ongoing controversy in the UK is whether prisoners should be allowed to vote whilst incarcerated. The EU says they should, and the UN has just weighed in to agree. The British government has promised a consultation (the traditional means of kicking an issue into the long grass), but hasn’t got round to saying when they’ll have it. In other words, no action any time soon.

The latest salvo in the discussion is an article by convicted murderer Ben Gunn. He wanted to post it onto his blog (which he can only do by sending snail mail text to friends). In this case, however, the Ministry of Justice blocked the text sent as a blog entry but permitted another copy to be go through as a letter.

The fact that Gunn is subject to these labyrinthine, inconsistent and political restrictions (as opposed to straightforward, consistent and impartial restrictions) would normally be a matter for him to take up with his Member of Parliament. Unfortunately, of course, he can’t, because as a prisoner he hasn’t got one. I stand corrected; he does. However, his MP has no vote from him, or other prisoners, to chase. I contend that this makes him less well-represented than a free citizen.

Having lived a good decade and a half in Britain, I think that Gunn has a telling point about the reason external pressure is not only ineffective, but possibly counterproductive in this affair. The introduction of concrete human rights legislation into British law hasn’t led to the kind of affirmation of Traditional British Wonderfulness that many people expected.

Britain has one of the worst records before the European Court of Human Rights. And that disturbs us, for we are not used to having our liberality questioned. Instead of using these realities to wonder about the nature of our political system and the power of government we prefer to complain about trivia - foreign judges, for instance. Rather than embracing our new rights we handle them as if they are an unexploded grenade.

Comparisons to the US are left as an exercise for the reader.

Comments on The Prisoner's Dilemma:
#1 ::: Rob Potter ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:24 PM:

I disagree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gunn's assertions, particularly as he has been convicted of murder.

If convicted of a crime against society, one should IMHO have ones rights as a citizen of said society revoked. End of story.

I would however consider the option that societal rights and privileges be revoked inversely proportional to the severity of the crime. More severe crime, more rights/privileges taken away.

Right or wrong, that's my 2 cents Canadian.

#2 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:30 PM:

I don't see a problem with those not being able to vote while incarcerated. After all you are being punished for a crime when you are in prison. That said, once they are out full rights should be restored regarding voting. I hate how in the US it can vary wildly by state.

#3 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:31 PM:

If enough people are in prison that they matter in an election, then there's something so deeply wrong with the system that I distrust any result it produces. Otherwise, there's no harm in letting prisoners vote (let them vote by absentee ballot from their last non-prison residence location; there IS a problem letting them vote in a small town that happens to have a prison in it).

And disenfranchising people is generally bad, and being seen to do so limits the legitimacy of a government. Trying to cut prisoners off, make them not part of society, is very bad in terms of how they'll behave when they are free from prison.

#4 ::: Rob Potter ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:34 PM:

@David:

I guess I should have indicated what Larry said. "While incarcerated.." I am a firm believer that once you do the time, your debt to society is paid in full and you deserve full reinstatement.

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:35 PM:

Rob Potter @1:
If convicted of a crime against society, one should IMHO have ones rights as a citizen of said society revoked. End of story.

Does that leave them as rights, really, then? Or are they mere privileges?

I agree that there is a fundamental debate about how much people who break the social compact are then allowed to rely on it and work within it. (I don't come out at the same place that you do; I think that prisoners should be being encouraged to be better members of society, because I think that more cohesion with the rest of the community will reduce their desire to offend again.)

But I don't see either the UK or the US actually having the discussion with any seriousness. Has Canada done so?

#6 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:40 PM:

Dave @ #3: Considering that the people in prison are being punished for violating laws in society then there are repercussion to those laws. Temporary and sometimes permanent loss of rights are one of those consequences. That's why I don't have a problem with someone in prison not being able to vote.

For those who say this is about taking away a fundamental right. Isn't prison all about that? A crime was committed, the punishment is the taking of various rights for a period. These rights include liberty and all that accompanies it.

Also voting is as much a responsibility as a right. These people are already showing they are not good members of society. Why should they be trusted with the responsibility to vote if we have to put them in prison?

#7 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:41 PM:

Not letting prisoners (as opposed to ex-prisoners) vote seems all right, unless you examine the social consequences of doing so.

Politicians are, almost by definition, people who game systems. As long as no one in prison can vote, there's no constituency for prison reform. That's why our prisons in the US keep getting worse, that and the fact that we permit prisons to be run for profit, which I think should be considered a human rights violation in itself; the profit motive is even less inclined to produce humane treatment than the get-re-elected motive.

I therefore favor enfranchising prisoners as a means of forcing the politicians to do something about the horrific conditions any prisoner must face today.

#8 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:45 PM:

Not to mention the good old practice of sentencing black men to long prison terms at "hard labor" for minor crimes as, essentially, a way of reenslaving them for work gangs. This technique can also be used to prevent voting by "undesirables," and has been.

In other words, the intended consequence of taking away prisoners' right to vote are all right; it's the UNintended consequences that burn, as is so often the case.

#9 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:49 PM:

What David Dyer-Bennett said @3. If a society has that large a percentage of its population in prison at any one time, it has more urgent problems than convicted criminals being able to influence the outcome of an election.

#10 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 05:51 PM:

Prisoners in Canada can still exercise their franchise if they so choose, is last I heard.

Voting is both a right and a responsibility. As I understand it, it takes more than being convicted of a crime for the state to be empowered to strip a convict of his or her rights as a human being or as a citizen. For the state to also strip a convict of his or her responsibilities as well is, practically speaking, seriously counterproductive.

#12 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 06:12 PM:

Mention of gaming the system reminds me of an article I read some years back which stated that while prisoners in the US could not vote they nevertheless counted towards the population of an area when it came to determining congressional representation and that prisoners from traditionally liberal cities being incarcerated in prisons in conservative rural areas was working to the advantage of Republicans. Anyone know any more about this?

#13 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 06:16 PM:

Xopher, #7: Off on a slight tangent, but the whole idea of for-profit prisons makes my skin crawl. Never mind any of the other problems with it, the business model required for its survival demands an ever-increasing supply of prisoners! I think we may be looking at a parallel to the situation in the Organleggers stories here.

#14 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 06:29 PM:

Gunn does have an MP. He can contact the one covering his home address or the prison address. Plenty of MPs do work on behalf of prisoners, and any communication in a constituency capacity is privileged & confidential.

#15 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 08:46 PM:

David Dyer Bennett:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States#Incarceration_rate

7.4 million Americans, or 2.4% of the adult population, are in prison or on parole or probation. I feel fairly sure that many elections are swung by less than 2% of the vote.

The country is indeed in serious trouble by your standard.

#16 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 08:55 PM:

Lee, I entirely agree. It's reprehensible that such things are allowed.

#17 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 09:22 PM:

Rob Hansen (#12): maybe they could count as 3/5ths of a person instead....

Massachusetts has amended its constitution to remove rights exactly once. (We managed to avoid doing so WRT same-sex marriage.) In 2000, a vote passed removing the right to vote from prisoners.

#18 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 09:30 PM:

pericat @10: Voting is both a right and a responsibility. As I understand it, it takes more than being convicted of a crime for the state to be empowered to strip a convict of his or her rights as a human being or as a citizen. For the state to also strip a convict of his or her responsibilities as well is, practically speaking, seriously counterproductive.

That doesn't strike me as particularly convincing. Holding people for crimes for extended periods is also stripping someone of their rights to free conduct and free assembly. Prisoners are almost by definition stripped of their first, second, and fourth amendment rights.

We don't allow prisoners to carry guns, why would we allow them to vote?

Part of the penalty of the sentence is to have one's rights and privileges revoked because that person has shown his or herself unable to live as a member of our society.

I guess I understand where abi and pericat are arguing from, but I haven't yet been convinced of their position.

#19 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 09:40 PM:

I think voting needs to be allowed to prisoners.

I didn't use to. The thing which changed my mind: Prisons.

Do you think that sort of horriffic condition would be something millions of constituents would be allowed to bear?

Instead we have the idea that, having broken one of societies rules, all bets are off (unless, instead of murdering one person, they impoverished, hundreds, or perhaps hundreds of thousands; who thinks Ken Lay was going to GenPop in a Maximum Security prison?).

It's inhumane. It's unconscioanable and a huge part of the reason is that the people behind bars cease to have any recourse, save political whim.

Since they don't vote, is't no surprise which way that whim goes.

#20 ::: boyhowdy ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 09:45 PM:

@David #3 and #15 by response:

The slippery slope standard here applies, I think: having long been a teacher of civics and media, and having always been an American, I have been taught, have taught, and firmly believe that EVERY vote counts. See the recent recount which put Al Franken into office, for example, as anecdotal evidence of this fact.

As such, I'd maintain that the number of incarcerated people in a society is a red herring in this discussion. EVERY vote can matter; ergo, we need to decide this case on the merits of whether or not criminal conviction should affect the societal right to have one's say in political action, and if so, then how it should be affected, and in which case. The question stands. Now let's hear arguments before the court, eh?

Personally, I believe that representation is a vital right for incarcerated prisoners, as it feeds into and supports their continued right of due process and the protection from cruel and unusual punishment. As such, I am startled to find that prisoners in the UK are not represented by anyone. Odd, that.

That said, voting is a different sort of right -- it is not protective, but proactive; it is a right of selection, not of access to someone who has or had been selection. I would have no problem with limiting SOME or all cases of incarcerated voting populations, given an appropriate rubric, just as I would be okay with an elected board making decisions which affected the custodial staff of a company even though that custodial staff cannot vote for that board member.

#21 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 09:50 PM:

Spherical Time @18: Do you feel that part of the penalty of a jail sentence should be that nobody in governmental power has any incentive to look out for your welfare and to ensure that your punishment is in fact fair and just, rather than cruel and unreasonable due to mismanagement?

I think a large part of the crux of Abi and Pericat's point is summed up in a "no" answer to that question. That's something rather different from, say, bearing arms.

Also, I would note that you're lumping "rights and privileges" into a single homogeneous mass, which I think is misleading your thinking. You would agree that a prisoner has the right not to be starved to death, not to be raped or murdered, and similar things, yes? If so, then I hope you can see that the question is one of which rights and privileges should be revoked, and can then reframe your position to explain why this particular one should be one of the ones that's revoked rather than one of the ones that's retained.

#22 ::: boyhowdy ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 09:56 PM:

@ 21: a helpful clarification. Perhaps, then, abi and Pericat could speak more about why they feel that voting FOR someone who's job is to look out for prisons and prisoners is a necessary perquisite for HAVING someone whose job includes that oversight?

I am minded, by counter-example, of lawyers appointed by a court for those who cannot afford one. The American justice system, at least, seems to me to separate out the right of representation from the right of selection. And I am minded to agree that these are not the same, nor are they as dependent on each other as I seem to be assuming from others' arguments here.

#23 ::: Andrew ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 10:08 PM:

Leaving aside all comments on the correctness of any side in any question of rights, it seems to me that all countries that I have heard of react extremely negatively to being told by any outside entity that they should change their laws and customs.

The only way to get real, positive change is to convince the population of a country that humans deserve X as a basic right, not impose it from outside. If the population doesn't take X's status as a right seriously, they won't pay any attention or care when it is abridged or diminished.

#24 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 10:21 PM:

In general, people get released from prison, have relatives and so forth on the outside, and these people can be a constituency for prison reform. Perhaps slow and indirect. There are other avenues as well (appeals to the public conscience, lawsuits, etc.) I don't claim that they are perfect ones, but they do exist.

I think (temporary) deprival of voting rights as part of the punishment for (some) crimes is legitimate. One could probably make a case for differentiation on the basis of the crime.

#25 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 10:49 PM:

I think the question of which rights to revoke from a convicted criminal* is tricky. There is a difficult to define line somewhere in there. Cross that line, and the convict has no incentive to make amends to society, because they no longer feel themselves beholden to, or benefiting from, society.

I think that the line can be roughly approximated by the yardstick of the purpose of revoking that right. Does it serve to neutralize the convict's proven danger to society, or does it serve purely to punish?

I think that removing the right to vote does nothing to keep the convict from further crime. It serves only to punish. And I would think it gives the criminal a very real sense that he/she no longer has any stake in society. That society no longer gives a damn for him or her. That he/she has no reason, therefore, to give a damn about the rest of the humans in the community.

And no, I don't think it's helpful to say that he/she must have already dismissed his/her sense of obligation to the rest of the community to have committed a crime. The people in jail are not all irredeemable serial killers; prisoners' stories are complex and varied. And sometimes, I suspect many times, the original crime had a lot to do with already feeling disowned by the greater community, which feeling will only be exacerbated by being treated as non-people.

I believe very strongly that prisoners, even those serving life sentences, are part of the greater community. An isolated part, a quarantined part, a disempowered part, but still a part. They borrow books from the library, engage in correspondence, write books and otherwise make art, perform labor, need to be protected from abuse.

And I'm not a great believer in punishment that has no constructive motives beyond punishment.

No, I can see no good reason for denying them the vote.


*I am setting aside for the purposes of making this point the very real and valid question of wrongly convicting and imprisoning innocent people.

#26 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 10:57 PM:

I agree with DDB and Xopher.

Another point is that many people are in prison because of discriminatory laws. For example, all the people who are behind bars solely because of pot convictions. They have their right to vote taken away, so they cannot vote to change this unjust law. If more than 2% of the population is disenfranchised, that may keep unjust laws on the books. To carry it to its logical (absurd) conclusion, if everyone who smoked pot was imprisoned, they would be no way to legalize it, because the smokers couldn't vote. (Yes, I realize that people who don't smoke can still be in favor of legalization, but I am taking this to an absurdity.)

#27 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2009, 10:58 PM:

Strongly agreeing with Lee @13 (& Xopher @7). Companies that have a profit incentive for an ever-increasing stream of both new & return criminal/prisoner/customers? Preferably for longer terms? And with minimal pressure from those 'customers' for improved (costlier) conditions – esp if worse conditions mean more return business – 'cos money comes from taxpayers, not inmates. Recipe for a spiralling disaster, affecting multiple parts of society in ramifying consequences. Could be another Tragedy of the Commons; perhaps more like slave-ships (see also our infamous Second Fleet). And lifetime disenfranchisement after release speaks volumes about hope or belief in rehabilitation or reform (David @3). Certainly refutes claims as 'a Christian country'.

The Australian Electoral Commission Fact Sheet on Prisoner Voting says, for Federal elections:

If you are serving a sentence of less than three years, serving a sentence of periodic detention, on early release, or on parole you are entitled to enrol and vote …
If you are serving a sentence of three years or longer you are not entitled to enrol and vote.
Once released from prison, you are entitled to enrol and vote.
Probably similar to EnZed (Soon Lee @11). Elsewhere they say you're ineligible to enrol if you "have been convicted of treason or treachery and have not been pardoned", and that "different rules may apply to voting in state and territory and local elections". Once enrolled, voting is compulsory, so mobile prison polling stations go around.

Andrew @23, tho' much US foreign policy seem predicated on the opposite.

Tony @24, very slow & indirect. Almost by definition those are the least & lowest in society, freely slandered & reviled by anyone for whatever purpose. Unlikely to have much political pull. One reason I dislike</euphem> the 'loser' philosophy.

#28 ::: Matthew Austern ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 12:48 AM:

Rob@12 is correct about US law. And yes, that's the first thing I thought of too when gaming the system was mentioned.

It's made worse because US prisons are often in isolated places, which by definition are places with low population, which means that the prisoners can provide a significant boost to the assessed population for purposes of assessing representation. The free population of small towns with large prisons thus gets increased voting power, and I'm sure this does sometimes affect the balance of power in state legislatures.

And, of course, one of the problems with legislative malapportionment is that it's self perpetuating. Once a group of people gains political power disproportionate to their numbers they can use it to, among other things, ensure that they don't lose power.

So yes: I'd like to see prisoners vote. Not primarily because I'm concerned with their rights (although I am), but because I don't like seeing them used as counters in a political game.

#29 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 02:21 AM:

There are a number of punishments available for criminals, depending on the type of crime, its severity, how committed, and so forth. Financial restitution, community service, restriction of personal liberty to a greater or lesser degree, are some examples. Which ones, or combinations of these are imposed usually depend on the nature of the offense.

Revocation of an offender's franchise is not one of them. It's an add-on. There's no direct connection between the crime and the punishment, the way there may be in restricting the liberty of someone who has committed a violent offense, or in appropriating the goods and bank accounts of someone who has committed a fraud.

There's no rehabilitative goal in revoking franchise, as doing so only further alienates an offender from society.

There's not even a social good goal, but rather the opposite: the more politically involved anyone becomes, including convicts, the more stake they have in society.†

Voting is a political act, and the only kinds of results you can attain by restricting the vote are political. Step 1: establish that a subset of the citizenry may not vote. Step 2: ensure that the 'right' people fall into that subset.

I seem to recall that as recently as 2000 was a scandal involving voter suppression of supposed felons in Florida and Texas. If felons did not automatically have the right to vote stripped on conviction, that attempt would not have been possible.

Other classes of persons denied the right to vote in the US have in the past included persons of colour (including Native Americans), women, persons declared mentally ill or incompetent, persons who did not own property, persons who could not pass a test of some kind, or pay a poll tax. If you think of the right to vote as something that is bestowed on you based on merit (earned or not), and which can thus be revoked based on lack of merit, you might want to take another look at that list: at the times those restrictions were in force, they seemed reasonable and right to the people who got to make such decisions.

For my part, I hold that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution in the US, or Charter in Canada, may not be set aside by the agents of the state unless they can show clear and compelling benefit to society in each and every individual case. That declaring a particular class of persons only gets some of the rights some of the time, is to allow the state too much slack.

--
† If anyone's interested in the reasoning of the Canadian SC's decision striking down prohibitions on prisoners' voting rights, link.

#30 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 02:44 AM:

I've gone through the same shift in perspective as Abi and a bunch of the commenters. I used to think that loss of the vote was a proper and sensible part of incarceration. And I would again given sensible sentencing and decent jails. But we have neither, and prison has become a powerful focus of both economic influence and moral degradation - remember how many architects and perpetrators of our current torture regime come out of the commercial prison scene. There are lots of things that need to be done about this, but one is letting their victims have a voice in the system too. And yes, I use "victim" deliberately. What we're doing to prisoners in the US and elsewhere is fully as morally criminal as what many of those inmates have done to others.

#31 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:23 AM:

Of course prisoners contribute to the census count where they're incarcerated. We count lots of people in the census who either don't or can't vote based on where their places of residence. The alternatives are to not count them and to count them somewhere that they don't use public services, and I don't see the benefit of those ideas.

I can go either way on voting. I suppose that it would be nicer if they could vote absentee in their "home district" like soldiers do if they care to register, but it's hard to get uptight at a state that reserves the right to strip prisoners' suffrage if one admits that the state has power over liberty. Mostly I'm curious as to why the UNHCR thought that this was a sufficiently pressing issue to justify their investigation; if this is the worst human rights violation that the UK has then they should feel good about themselves.

#32 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 05:21 AM:

It's not a very good argument that because prisoners have some of their rights revoked that therefore they can have all their rights revoked. The constitutional amendments don't just protect the right to bear arms. They also protect the right to a fair trial, the right to counsel, freedom of religion, and protect against cruel and unusual punishment. The idea that being incarcerated automatically denies all constitutional protections is obscene. Each revoked right needs to be justified on its own terms, not because some other rights are revoked. And I have yet to see any good justifications for removing people's right to vote because they are in prison. The very idea implies that prisoners are not to be considered part of society at all.

#33 ::: Richard ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 05:42 AM:

a matter for him to take up with his Member of Parliament. Unfortunately, of course, he can’t, because as a prisoner he hasn’t got one

Wrong. He does have one, just as, say, anyone under the age of 18 has one. He merely didn't get to vote for them. I also have a member of parliament for whom I didn't vote, so I can't really see the difference.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 05:46 AM:

I have updated the post.

I still contend that a person without franchise has less chance of strong representation from the local MP than a voter.

This goes even more so for a population of non-voters, and yet more strongly for an unpopular population of non-voters.

#35 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 07:42 AM:

25 is right. Prisons are supposed to fulfil three functions:
Deterrence: to discourage people from committing crimes;
Protection: to incarcerate criminals so they can't commit more crimes while they're inside;
Rehabilitation: to reform criminals so they won't commit more crimes on release.

Anything that happens in a prison should be weighed against these three purposes. So we deprive prisoners of the right to free movement and association, for example, because that's necessary in order to protect the public.

Would disenfranchisement act as a real deterrent? I seriously doubt it. Would it serve to protect the public? I can't see how. Would it help to rehabilitate offenders? If anything, the reverse.

So get rid of it.

#36 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:36 AM:

I agree with David Dyer-Bennett at #3.

#7 ::: Xopher: The other reason I believe there's no constituency for prisoner rights in the US is that there's an active ideology against it-- a common and horrifying belief that being too kind is much more dangerous (and emotionally revolting on top of it) than being too harsh.

Prisoners' friends and families are also a large potential constituency for prison reform. Aside from that they're likely to have fewer resources, I assume the reason that they aren't politically very active is just that no one's managed to organize it.

I believe strongly that structural impediments matter, but so does the right person/right time/inspiration.

#27 ::: Epacris:

It's not just privately owned prisons (in at least one case in cahoots with the judges, it's the California prison guard union, too.

*****

My first exposure to the idea that taking the franchise away from prisoners is a political issue was a piece by a gay man who wrote about it hitting him as soon as he'd read that sodomy was a franchise-losing crime (a felony?) that this made it much harder to change the laws. (Sorry, I don't remember who wrote it or when it was written. I suspect it went back to the 80s, but I'm guessing.)

#12 ::: Rob Hansen: I don't know about counting prisoners working to the advantage of the Republicans.

Some 15 years ago, I read a Wall Street Journal piece about prisoners counting to increase poverty stats for local governments. This meant that the local government could get Federal money for poverty relief, none of which went to the prisoners.


#37 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:11 AM:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ...”

#18 and #21 touched on the question of which rights are unalienable¹ (cannot be taken away) and which are conditional (may be withdrawn for cause)?  And which so-called “rights” are not rights but privileges which are granted, perhaps earned or acquired, and can also be withdrawn?  Into which of these categories does voting fall?

Of the three “rights” that the authors of the Declaration of Independence mentioned, at least two are conditional, not unalienable:  in every country in the world the authorities have the power under law to deprive citizens of their liberty, and nobody seriously challenges that power on the grounds of an unalienable right to liberty.  And in many countries (including the US) governments have, though they may not exercise it, the power under law to deprive citizens of their lives.

However, few people – in the West anyway – would deny that some rights are unalienable, such as (Chris Lawson’s examples in #32) the rights to fair trial, legal assistance, freedom of religion, and protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Voting is certainly not an unalienable right.  It’s granted only to those who qualify for it – that is, citizens of the relevant country (e.g. not illegal immigrants) who are above a certain arbitrarily-decided age.  Many or most countries prevent people from voting if they haven’t the mental capacity to do so.²  Maybe some countries still impose other qualifications, as both US and UK did until relatively recently – I don’t know.

So I think it’s wrong to say that prisoners are entitled to vote on “human rights” grounds.  I don’t have the European Court of Human Rights ruling on the subject, but that couurt is inclined from time to time to (let us say) justify its existence.  I’m simply with those above (most recently ajay #35) who show clearly that refusing prisoners the vote is pointless.

There could be a similar discussion about the pros and cons of granting the vote to younger people.

__________
¹ I’ll stay with the DoI’s spelling, though really I prefer “inalienable”.
² In the UK, any citizen who is of age can register to vote, but when he or she arrives at the polling station the presiding officer may ask “Are you the person named on the register as ...?” and “Have you already voted?” and if satisfactory answers aren’t given, can refuse to issue a ballot paper, i.e. deny the right to vote, on grounds of incapacity.  Those questions are not asked of postal voters, so there have been many cases of corruption – people using the postal votes of those who are incapable.

#38 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:19 AM:

DDB said (#3) “If enough people are in prison that they matter in an election, then there’s something so deeply wrong with the system that I distrust any result it produces.”

Either that, or there’s something deeply wrong with the country.  IMHO “there are too many people in prison” is not a useful statement.  Some people have to be locked up.  If all the people who are in prison are there for valid reasons, so be it.  It’s useful to say “some people are in prison who don’t need to be locked up” which I think is certainly the case, though I’ve no idea what proportion.

#39 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:35 AM:

Amens to Xopher @#7-8, Lee #13, Terr #19, boyhowdy #20, Magenta Griffith #26, et seq.

Nancy Lebovitz #36: The other reason I believe there's no constituency for prisoner rights in the US is that there's an active ideology against it...

In fact, there are a few organizations working for prisoner's rights, but they're vastly outnumbered and outspent by the lobbyists for the "prison-industrial complex". That said, "criminals" are clearly positioned as sin-eaters for American culture, with the worst criminals being used to stigmatize anyone who's been convicted of anything whatsoever. So anyone who wants to try limiting the abuse of any prisoners -- say, pot smokers, illegal nudists, political protesters -- gets smeared with "you want to coddle baby-rapists and momma-murderers!"

Prisoners' friends and families are also a large potential constituency for prison reform. Aside from that they're likely to have fewer resources, I assume the reason that they aren't politically very active is just that no one's managed to organize it.

There's a nastier reason too -- family members who get too "uppity" are likely to get their visitation "rights" withdrawn by the prison That's if they don't face arrest or other abuses themselves -- remember, many or most of the prisoners come from entire communities which are effectively denied protection of the law.

#40 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:05 AM:

Nancy, #36: a common and horrifying belief that being too kind is much more dangerous (and emotionally revolting on top of it) than being too harsh

This ties in with attitudes about social safety nets such as welfare (and, at the moment, a public health care plan). And it all goes back to the carefully-cultivated meme that "bad things only happen to those who deserve them" -- that no one should get a second chance once they have proven that they're not worthy. There's a lot of doublethink in there too, along the same lines as "the only moral abortion is MY abortion"; of course it's different when you or someone you know has a hard-luck streak, or when (frex) it's YOUR kid who vandalized a black church or three.

#41 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:16 AM:

Chris Lawson@32: There are two separate issues in my mind. Apart from the issue of whether incarcerated prisoners should be allowed to vote (which I suppose I support), I don't think that it is a sufficiently fundamental right that it would be my place to question the UK's right to self-determination. Perhaps I feel equally strongly that a free society shouldn't have even the vestiges of a monarchy, but that doesn't mean that the UNHCR should be calling nations out on it. The newspaper is full of evidence that there are plenty of "democracies" where *nobody's* vote is counted, and I would argue that our efforts would be better served there. Of course, if you feel that suffrage should be extended to prisoners in *your* country, then rock on.

#42 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:54 AM:

#39 ::: David Harmon:

Thanks for the fact that prisoners' families that agitate for better treatment may lose visitation rights-- it wouldn't surprise me if they're worried about more drastic retaliation, too.

#43 ::: LDR ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 11:29 AM:

The recent family dysfunction thread reminds me of all the people who should be in jail, aren't, and still get to vote. That's a lot scarier to me than prisoners voting.

#44 ::: pat greene ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 11:30 AM:

There are a couple of exceptions to the "prisoners can't vote" rule in the U.S. In Maine and Vermont, prisoners can vote without restrictions. In Mississippi, of all places, over 70% of incarcerated felons are eligible to vote, although there is currently a move afoot to strip that right. Of course, the same state legislator is trying to fix provisions that make it difficult for those who have had their suffrage stripped to get it back.

Restrictions also vary about when (or in the case of violent crimes in Alabama or Kentucky, if) the right to vote gets reinstated.

#45 ::: Spherical Time ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 12:28 PM:

Brooks Moses @21: Do you feel that part of the penalty of a jail sentence should be that nobody in governmental power has any incentive to look out for your welfare and to ensure that your punishment is in fact fair and just, rather than cruel and unreasonable due to mismanagement?

No. But I also don't think that revoking the rights of prisoners to vote should completely abrogate politicians obligations to those incarcerated.

Let's be clear, I only support the revocation of voting rights from prisoners that have committed serious felonies and only while they are serving their time. But they are not the only ones that have a stake in the people incarcerated. The families of felons and people with any kind of compassion, moral awareness, and interest in justice should also be cognizant of the conditions in prisons.

I don't know anyone currently in prison but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't care about voting for better prison conditions.

Still, I guess I'm concerned about the idea (precedent?) that comes from allowing felons full voting rights. Aside from locking them up, what exactly are we doing to show them that we as a society find their actions repugnant? Segregating them for a time seems a bit less serious if we know that political candidates may have to worry about getting the votes of felons to stay in office. And why wouldn't they vote? The polling stations and registrations would have to be brought to them. A thousand people or more voting in every election could be a sizeable block for local politics.

BM: Also, I would note that you're lumping "rights and privileges" into a single homogeneous mass, which I think is misleading your thinking. You would agree that a prisoner has the right not to be starved to death, not to be raped or murdered, and similar things, yes? If so, then I hope you can see that the question is one of which rights and privileges should be revoked, and can then reframe your position to explain why this particular one should be one of the ones that's revoked rather than one of the ones that's retained.

Because the point of segregating them from society is segregating them from society. I tried to phrase this above but let me try again: they've shown that they are not interested in playing by the societal rules and laws that we, as a people, have agreed upon.

Why should we suddenly assume that they have any beneficent interest in the political process as soon as they're locked up? We've allowed them to be judged by a jury of their peers and have found them to be not acting in society's interest by committing felonies and have decided to lock them away from the rest of us so that they cannot continue to do so. Giving them any outlet from which they can affect the outside population seems ridiculous to me.

So, when you say "We act to provide them with food, shelter, and medical attention," my response to that is: Yes, because we're a civilized society. In a sense we have stripped them of all rights, in locking them up. But that does not cease our obligation to them to keep them healthy because of our responsibility as human beings, not their rights.

Nicole @ 25: I think that the line can be roughly approximated by the yardstick of the purpose of revoking that right. Does it serve to neutralize the convict's proven danger to society, or does it serve purely to punish?

Well, I think I just tried to make the point of neutralizing a convict's danger to society, but I find your alternative . . . disagreeable? I'm not quite sure how to phrase that disagreement though.

I don't believe that the idea that we are punishing our prisoners for breaking laws is reprehensible.

We could call them "consequences" or "sanctions" or any of a number of different things, but that does not stop them all from being the same thing: what we agree should happen on the violation of our laws.

You suggest that punishing someone for committing a crime is bad, but I have no real issue with setting severe consequences, including the losses of one's right to vote.

ajay @35 says that one of the goals of imprisonment is rehabilitation. That's a noble goal. However, it would seem to me that if our goal is to rehabilitate someone, that should indicate that they have yet to be rehabilitated. Letting them vote again when they have been so judged (i.e. when they're released) seems reasonable to me, nor am I defending Florida's repugnant and disenfranchising mess of laws.

Additionally, I just want to agree with 7, 13, 27, et al. about for-profit prisons. Uhg. Absolutely disgusting.

pericat @29: There are a number of punishments available for criminals, depending on the type of crime, its severity, how committed, and so forth. Financial restitution, community service, restriction of personal liberty to a greater or lesser degree, are some examples. Which ones, or combinations of these are imposed usually depend on the nature of the offense.

I just want to reiterate that I am only talking about the most severe classes of crimes: murders, rapes, kidnapping and those people that talk during movies.

#46 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 01:02 PM:

If a right can be revoked, it's not a right. What we do with prisoners is make a logical hairsplitting.

We say they abrogated the social contract, and so we "strip" them of their rights. We forcibly deny them things which are more than privileges.

Some of those I don't object too; the right to move about freely, because they used that to commit harms to the polity. It's all the other things which give me pause.

They don't cease to be people, and a huge amount of how we treat them seems to be based on the idea they are somehow less than human. Over on Absolute Write someone asked, "how long will it be before he is locked a small room with a man named 'Bubba'?"

That's appalling, and we've internalised it not merely as a thing which happens, but a part of the expected "punishment" for committing a crime.

The measure of a man (and a society) is how it treats the helpless and defenseless. One doesn't get much more of both than when one is locked in a cage, where there is no escape.

We are mortified when we read of someone who has kidnapped someone, and then abused them, tormented them, raped them; but we do this to more than 7 million people, and we laugh about it.

Yeah, I think they deserve the right to vote, because they sure as hell don't deserve what we are doing to them.

#47 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 01:18 PM:

When I was in Chicago, talking about torture/interrogation, I got to sit in on a meeting about Tamms.

According to the Illinois Dept. of Corrections, everyone in that prison is there for the good of the rest of the prison population. They have, "solid intelligence" that they pose a threat to others.

They have been convicted of no crime, apart from the one which got them sent to prison. It's an administrative decision.

Once a year they get a review. Every year it's declared the DoC has "good intelligence" to keep them there. That, after a decade of almost zero contact with the outside world they will take over some gang, and then start getting people in that prison, or other prisons, killed.

The evidence is never shared.

This is what we are doing. This is how we treat people. That sort of treatment of an animal will get one sent to jail.

Oh, the irony.

#48 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 01:22 PM:

Clifton@15: Yes, exactly.

#49 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 01:25 PM:

David: I thought that was your intent. I've noticed you have an oblique and a bleak way of putting things.

#50 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:18 PM:

Xopher@7: As long as no one in prison can vote, there's no constituency for prison reform. That's why our prisons in the US keep getting worse, that and the fact that we permit prisons to be run for profit, which I think should be considered a human rights violation in itself; the profit motive is even less inclined to produce humane treatment than the get-re-elected motive.

When the job of moving prisoners between prisons and courts got outsourced in the UK in the 1990s, I was surprised how much it squicked me out to see a van go by, full of prisoners, with a corporate logo on it (usually Group 4 back then; it seems to be Reliance now). It struck me, and still strikes me, as obviously wrong, but to say so seems to hit most people as whimsical or nostalgic. Certainly no left-wing politicians over here seem to be complaining about it (though among the more old-fashioned Tories with a fondness for public institutions there are some who don't like it).

There are apparently 84,382 prisoners in England and Wales at the moment. (Or are the NI and Scottish figures included in the figures on that page? The website is so rubbish I really don't have the will to drill down for more exact information at the moment). A proportion on these will be foreign nationals who would not be eligible to vote in parliamentary elections. My own favoured solution would be a single constituency covering all UK prisons, a resurrection of the fancy franchises that died out when the university seats were abolished. It's not going to happen, of course.

I mentioned parliamentary elections, but what about local elections? If deprivation of the parliamentary franchise is unreasonable (as I think it is), what about the town/city/parish council franchise?

#51 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:24 PM:

Terry @46: We do strip them of many rights when they are in prison. It's the whole point of putting them in prison really. To separate them from society, punish them for their crime, and perhaps rehabilitate them.

I understand where you and other are coming from, I just do not agree. Should all criminals be treated equal for being allowed to vote? Probably not. But violent criminals, those who end up in there for life, those types I can see stripping the right. Should someone who has shown a total lack of regard for their fellow humans be allowed to fully participate in the shaping of that society? That is the fundamental question for me. Do those who murder or rape have a say in who is elected? I'd say by their actions they do not, at least while imprisoned.

Do they deserve the basics to live? Yes, of course. I don't see being able to vote as such in this case.

#52 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 03:32 PM:

Re the main topic- I can't see any good reason to revoke voting rights from prisoners, so of course they should be able to vote if they would be able to vote without their convictions.

Re outsorced prisons- not much to add to what others have said about what's wrong with that.

Xopher @7, other countries have gone through all kinds of prison reforms even though, unlike the US, they don't have nearly enough people in prisons for politicians to care about their votes. I kind of think that if you have enough prisoners to wonder seriously about how they'll vote if they vote, you're doing something wrong.

Terry Karney @47, some of the conditions there- shackles whenever prisoners are out of their cells, no educational opportunities, strictly limited contact to the outside world, the red cages- are pretty horrible, others- one prisoner per cell, limited contact between inmates- are probably less bad than conditions in most prisons.

#53 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 04:56 PM:

John Stanning @ 38: It’s useful to say “some people are in prison who don’t need to be locked up” which I think is certainly the case, though I’ve no idea what proportion.

Probably at least 1 in 6:

in the federal system, about one out of every six federal inmates is in federal prison for marijuana. That's a very large number. There are more people now in federal prison for marijuana offenses than for violent offenses.… Most of them are marijuana growers and marijuana dealers, although there are instances of people being put away for remarkably small amounts of marijuana. I've come across more than one case of people getting life without parole for a joint or for less than a joint. They tend to be habitual offenders and that's their third strike, but that's still a very severe punishment for possessing a joint.…
Under the laws of fifteen states, you can get a life sentence for a nonviolent marijuana offense. And the average sentence for a convicted murder in this country is about six years. In the state of California, the average prison sentence for a convicted killer is about 3.3 years.
Source.

#54 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 05:01 PM:

Larry: Lets take, a priori the assumption that when someone breaks the law, we punish theml in the furtherance of a social good/to protect society from further predation.

In what way does stripping them of franchise further these aims?

That is to say, what social good is futhered?

What protection of the greater populace is created?

Raphael: That being in solitary confinement, with no human interaction is better than being in the general population isn't a praiseworthy thing. It's probably the most condemnatory (of prison systems) thing I've seen in the thread.

That's without looking at the psychological harms which come of lack of human interaction/the company of friends and equals.

There are studies which show a large factor in the recidivism of "institutionalised" individuals is they have no way to functionally interact outside of prison. They have been socialised to a world which only exists there.

That's not the fault of the prisoners; is the fault of the gaolers (I tried it the other way, jailers looked wrong).

#55 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 07:22 PM:

If I'm right, I'm seeing in this a dichotomy of view. I'll try to argue this without biasing it to my view as well as I can.

Terry et al. are looking at this discussion as "show me a reason why taking away this benefit* of American Society will aid the prisoner" (as a tool of in this conversation rehabilitation, punishment, societal reintegration), and/or American Society as a whole.

Larry et al. are looking at this discussion as "show me a reason why we should allow this benefit of American Society to the prisoner" (again, using things such as punishment, rehabilitation...) and/or if allowing this benefit aids American Society as a whole.

Everyone agrees that some of the benefits of American Society need to be curtailed for these purposes as part of incarceration. But I think some think this is a positive benefit to the penal system, while others think it is a necessary restriction.

I do not believe that any consensus is available between the two types without an agreement on this principle, which I despair of happening (to wit, I'm not changing *my* mind on which side I'm on).

* Using a neutral-ish term here as opposed to right, responsibility, privilege, or otherwise to try to remove those biases from discussion.

#56 ::: Rob Potter ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 07:28 PM:

Does the US populace even care about their franchise? Do prisoners truly care that they can't vote? Based on historical percentage of registered voters who turned out to US federal elections, I would submit that they do not:

High ~63% low ~36%

source:
http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html

Further, if the US has ~2.5% of it's populace in prison (yes, I know that number includes parolees etc but bear with me for illustrative purposes please) that represents more than enough votes to swing a result, particularly if a state with a large population holds a high number of electoral votes.

So....do you feel that a murderer, serial murderer, rapist, kidnapper, child molester etc. deserves the right to affect who makes policy? How about if that person will be imprisoned for the remainder of their life, and so will never return to free society? Would you still feel that way if it was your husband/wife/child who was the victim? I, for one do not. The only "right" that a person has is the right to attempt to make the best out of their lives that they can. Anything else is something that we as a society feel should be a basic part of that life (eating, breathing, freedom etc). Voting is a privelege. It should be revoccable. Ergo, live within society, have the privelege of affecting how that society develops.

Or, maybe members of society should EARN the right to franchise by some form of service to society (public service, military service, voluntary service)? If franchise was something that you earned through your actions, then the revoccation of franchise would carry far more weight.

Just a thought.

#57 ::: Rob Potter ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 07:37 PM:

FYI, Canadian statistics by comparison:

Source:

http://www.elections.ca/content.asp?section=pas&document=turnout&lang=e

#58 ::: Russell Coker ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:12 PM:

Regarding pressure from the outside, is the EU REALLY outside the UK? Anyone with citizenship in the EU can live in the UK for as long as they want without restrictions and there is an increasing body of law which is harmonised between EU countries.

There has been some mention of the idea of removing voting rights for only certain crimes. If that was implemented then it would probably be done for serious crimes against people (EG murder) but not for minor drugs offences and non-violent crimes against property. Therefore the vast majority of prisoners would still be allowed to vote which then would give even greater weight to the argument that if you have enough prisoners who meet the criteria for losing voting rights then you have more serious problems in society.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @25 wrote "They borrow books from the library, engage in correspondence, write books and otherwise make art"

However they do have limited rights to do that, this post noted that Ben Gunn could not directly post to his blog. While allowing global net access for prisoners who are doing hard time seems like a bad idea, allowing them to have their own blog that they can directly access seems reasonable. If they are restricted to accessing only their own blog then their activities could be easily monitored (more easily than their telephone calls).

Also regarding mental incapacity, apart from the ability to answer the questions "are you the person named on the ballot" and "have you voted before" it seems pointless to try and assess that. If you have enough incapable voters who are aligned to affect the result of the election (as opposed to voting randomly, casting invalid votes, or voting in ways that can't affect the result) then again you have a serious problem in society.

Spherical Time@45:
If prisoners were denied the ability to vote in local elections then that would probably be regarded as reasonable to most people. Not many people seem concerned about the ability to vote for the local council anyway.

Rob Potter@56:
If a prisoner who was convicted of whatever crime seems most horrible to you votes for the party you prefer is that a bad thing?

If such a prisoner votes for the same party as your friendly next-door neighbour (who happens to disagree with you about politics) is that really such a bad thing?

If the candidates who have a reasonable chance of winning an election are all OK and the prisoners have no possibility of tipping the election for an evil party then what is the problem with allowing them to vote?

Can anyone cite an example of a really close election in a first-world country where a truly awful candidate could potentially have led the government if the prisoners had voted for them?

Please note that the 2000 and 2004 US presidential elections really don't count (no matter which side you support or how strongly you support them). The US president can't do that much without support (or at least a great lack of opposition) from congress...

#59 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:17 PM:

Rob Potter @ 56: Or, maybe members of society should EARN the right to franchise by some form of service to society

In my opinion, if you have to obey the law, you should get a say in what the law is.

#60 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:24 PM:

Or, maybe members of society should EARN the right to franchise by some form of service to society

Oh dear Ghod, please not another Starship Troopers thread!

#61 ::: Rob Potter ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:38 PM:

Tim @ 59: In my opinion, if you have to obey the law, you should get a say in what the law is.

And therefore (by extension), if you choose not to obey the law then you should your say of what the law is?

#62 ::: Rob Potter ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:40 PM:

...you should forfeit your say...

#63 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 08:40 PM:

Terry Karney, #54: That's without looking at the psychological harms which come of lack of human interaction/the company of friends and equals.

Even 150 years ago, Charles Dickens could see it was crazy and counterproductive:

In the outskirts, stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania. The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.
In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying 'Yes' or 'No,' I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree.

(That's from American Notes, chapter 7. The Gutenberg HTML version doesn't have anchors, so I can't link to it directly.)

Rob Potter, #56: Would you still feel that way if it was your husband/wife/child who was the victim?

No one would. That's why, in civilized societies, punishment is dictated by the law and not the victim of the crime: in that situation, none of us can trust ourselves.

Or, maybe members of society should EARN the right to franchise by some form of service to society (public service, military service, voluntary service)?

You would quickly find roadblocks set up to discourage the "wrong" people from serving. (I never trusted Heinlein again after I read Starship Troopers.)

#64 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:07 PM:

Terry, I agree with you on many things, but not when you say "The right that can be revoked is not a right at all." I cannot think of any right that cannot be revoked. So I think your statement really means there are no such things as rights.

Maybe that's fine. Maybe that's sort of orthagonal. I think the important thing is: there are things we *call* "rights" which we erect governments to protect in their citizenry. Some of those may be taken away when punishing crimes. Others should not.


Spherical Time, it is not punishment in and of itself I find objectionable; it is punishment which, when implemented, neither serves to curtail further crime nor to rehabilitate the criminal. See ajay's list @35. Any punishment which does not serve to further those goals can only be said to serve a fourth goal: vengeance. Oh, it gets called by many noble names, like "closure for the victims[' families]" for instance, but in the end, all it is, is payback. "You hurt us, so we'll make sure you hurt too."

There are enough punishments that do indeed hurt, that also serve the goals on ajay@35's list, that there is no need for punishments that do nothing beyond exacting vengeance.

We have to keep the real goal in mind: protecting society from crimes, and reducing crime from every moment on. Any punishment which cannot be said to serve that goal has no place in the system. And anything that acts as an obstacle to this goal is despicable. I think disallowing prisoners to vote, whatever they are convicted of, absolutely acts as an obstacle to rehabilitation. It also may act as an obstacle to deterrence, by predisposing many toward hostility to the community.

Also, remember that even amongst those convicted of felonies, many are yet innocent. Also, some things treated as felonies shouldn't be; see Nancy's point about the bad old sodomy laws. Also, conditions for prisoners are horrible. Also, for-profit prisons have an incentive to increase recidivism rather than rehabilitation. Also, remember the point made above that prisoners' family are threatened with loss of visitation rights should they get too uppity.

When prisoners are abused, what recourse do they have? Some don't even have friends and family. What recourse can we guarantee them?

The vote may not be enough, but it's *something*.

There are too many injustices already in the system for me to feel good about denying prisoners the right to vote on remedying those injustices. The victim of an injustice is yet a victim, whatever he/she may have perpetrated. Disenfranchising victims is yet another injustice, and I'm not going to support injustice. Yes, this means I support felons voting and thus affecting public policy. Yes, I think that is a risk we have to take in order to pursue justice in this issue.

#65 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:25 PM:

Rob Potter @ 61: And therefore (by extension), if you choose not to obey the law then you should [forfeit] your say of what the law is?

I wasn't addressing the prisoner issue, only your suggestion of limiting the franchise based on service.

For what it's worth, I consider disenfranchising felons (while incarcerated) defensible, for the reason you state, but am not convinced that it's desirable.

#66 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:25 PM:

That's why, in civilized societies, punishment is dictated by the law and not the victim of the crime: in that situation, none of us can trust ourselves.

Wesley, thank you for this. I was trying to get there with what I said about closure and vengeance, but you have put it much more eloquently.

#67 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 09:55 PM:

Nicole, #64: You are correct in saying that there are no absolute rights. Everything we think of as a right is such because there is a more-or-less general agreement in our society to think of it that way, and the things we think of as rights change from culture to culture and across time within cultures. Just to pick one glaring example, as recently as 150 years ago there was no right not to be enslaved in America (if you weren't white); now there is. As a society, we still don't agree that people have a right to food and shelter, or there wouldn't be the problems with homeless and hungry people that we have.

This is sort of orthogonal to the discussion, but a lot of people do seem to think that there are absolute rights which have the force of natural law, and that unexpressed assumption causes a lot of friction in conversations about rights.

#68 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:15 PM:

Rob @ 56, Wesley @ 63
Would you still feel that way if it was your husband/wife/child who was the victim?

I am the victim, and I do not believe we should take away a prisoner's franchise.

In the US, we as a people have fought for almost 400 years to have a say in our governance, some groups getting it more recently than others. No one should be deprived of the ability to vote once given.


Nicole @ 64 Any punishment which does not serve to further those goals can only be said to serve a fourth goal: vengeance. Oh, it gets called by many noble names, like "closure for the victims[' families]" for instance, but in the end, all it is, is payback. "You hurt us, so we'll make sure you hurt too."

There are enough punishments that do indeed hurt, that also serve the goals on ajay@35's list, that there is no need for punishments that do nothing beyond exacting vengeance.

Yes. This.

I became a bleeding heart liberal *because* I was a victim, saw both the proper use of and the injustice inherent in the system, and learned that there is always, always more to the story than black and white. Sometimes punishment is merited, but you cannot change negative behaviors without an understanding of their underpinnings. Imprisonment must also be accompanied by a sincere effort at rehabilitation or you've just landed society in a much bigger pile of s***, and you undercut rehab and re-integration after incarceration with disenfranchisement.

I could go on, but it's not relevant to the discussion.

#69 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 10:20 PM:

Wesley @63, Nicole @66, various others.
"in civilized societies, punishment is dictated by the law and not the victim".

Like Marx's 'opiate of the masses', Old Testament 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth' now seems the opposite of its original intent. It limited vengeance to a 'proportional' response. Now we hope to have advanced to even better ideas (New Testament & beyond), not without struggle.

#70 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2009, 11:59 PM:

Rob Potter @56: Would you still feel that way if it was your husband/wife/child who was the victim?

Not only is that irrelevant, Rob, it's intellectually dishonest.

If you were a judge, or a defense attorney, or called to be a juror, for the trial of the accused murder of your wife or child, you wouldn't be allowed to do the job. As a judge you'd have to recuse yourself; as a juror you'd be eliminated early in the choosing process. Our legal system works this way because we value objectivity and rationality in our legal proceedings, and people can't be rational about someone who's murdered their loved ones.

The bit of rhetoric you used -- functionally the same one used on Michael Dukakis in the '88 presidential debates -- is an attempt to replace rational thought with emotion.

And to make matters worse, it's an appeal to our basest emotions -- fear, anger, the desire for revenge, and the tendency to "other" people different from ourselves. You hardly ever hear anyone ask the more noble version of that same question, the one that appeals to sympathy and generosity: What if it were you, or your spouse or child, who was in prison? I think that's because most of us (at least, those of us who are white and middle- or upper-class, and have been lucky enough not to get caught) tend to think of ourselves and our families and friends as "good people", basically "decent" sorts, the kinds of people who the legal system is supposed to protect, not the ones to be protected from. The base version, the one you asked, asks us to imagine our loved ones as victims. The noble question only works if you can project yourself or your loved ones into the category of "bad people"; it requires a little more mental effort, and therefor has less power.

#71 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 04:34 AM:

Just to clarify what I think may be a misunderstanding in the OP and #58:  the European Court of Human Rights isn’t directly connected to the EU.  The court implements the European Convention on Human Rights which was adopted in 1950 by the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation with, currently, 47 member states (EU: 27) all of whom AFAIK are signatories to the convention.  Every country in Europe except Belarus and the Vatican is now a member of the CoE and the Vatican, the US, Canada, Mexico and Japan have observer status.

But I think compliance with the convention may be a condition of EU membership, so perhaps EU pressure can be applied that way.

#72 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 04:59 AM:

I’m not sure that it’s valid to say that everyone who’s in prison has chosen to live outside (civilised?) society and therefore shouldn’t have a say in how society develops.  Some people choose to live more or less outside society, in one way or another (e.g. hermits), without actually breaking the law:  should they be excluded too?  There are certainly people in prison who have rejected society entirely, but many who haven’t – some can even be said to be decent people who made a momentary mistake which we who have been spared the mistake might feel that we should not totally condemn.

#73 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 07:22 AM:

John Stanning @71:

Thanks for the clarification.

But to a certain extent, it doesn't matter whether it's the EU or the ECHR under discussion. The point is that the British are reacting to both as foreign, partly as a way of de-legitimizing any criticism they may make.

I didn't see this effect nearly so clearly until I moved to the Netherlands, which doesn't do so to nearly the same extent (Geert Wilders notwithstanding).

#74 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 07:58 AM:

a) the spectre of prisoners as nihilists who would use their vote to elect destructive candidates is, frankly, a bit silly.
b) "In my opinion, if you have to obey the law, you should get a say in what the law is" is right (god bless you National Covenant of 1638!) Disenfranchisement isn't imposed as a punishment for any non-imprisonable offences; but if you think it's a sound idea to disenfranchise prisoners, shouldn't you also want to disenfranchise people whose offences merited only a fine or community service? They've broken society's rules as well.

#75 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 08:08 AM:

Very often, a choice to break the law is very much a political statement - break the laws as we break bread, or Quaker noncooperation with some laws, such as the forcible conscription-or-CO-registration in the UK around the World Wars. Or the mass campaigns of noncooperation against the Poll Tax in the last days of Thatcher.

So it's not uncommon to see offenses committed entirely within the political framework, in full expectation and indeed often in hope of a response from the courts, because that's often the only recourse people have. Responding to it by banishing the offender from the political framework is just an attempt to change the rules so nobody except the state can use them.

Denying convicted prisoners the franchise is no more than symbolic, really. If they're in for a serious offense, they're not going to be able to vote and get the law changed so what they did was legal; we don't need to have a discussion about the laws on murder. On the other hand, they have just as much right to an opinion on the euro or on climate change as anyone else, and just as much right to have that opinion counted - and as a society and a democracy, we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn't listen to them. They may have committed a crime; that doesn't make them less capable or less valuable in other respects, and it definitely doesn't mean that we should encourage a sense of not belonging to society in them.

Shorter version: Person A's vote is not a good thing for Person A. It's a good thing for the polity to which they belong.

#76 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 09:09 AM:

#63 ::: Wesley:

Thanks for the idea of not trusting Heinlein after Starship Troopers. I don't know if he had any idea how attractive restricting the franchise to those who'd earned it would be for a lot of people, but it's a very bad idea presented as a good thing. I don't think it's something Heinlein actually felt strongly about-- afaik, it only appeared in the one novel, it's not pervasive like being against slavery or for nudism.

#77 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 10:11 AM:

Lee@67: I wouldn't call it "unexpressed"—"...[T]hat among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

#78 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 10:28 AM:

David, #77: I think you've missed my point. Please re-read the entire comment.

#79 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 01:13 PM:

Wesley (#63) notes the Eastern State Penitentiary.

A few years ago I was visiting Philadelphia. To get into Independence Hall I had to submit to metal detectors and bag X-rays. To get near the Liberty Bell I had to submit to metal detectors and bag X-rays. To get into the National Constitution Center I had to submit to a hand search of my bag.

To get into Eastern State Penitentiary, I just had to pay the admission charge and walk in.

Ah, the shrines of freedom.

#80 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 02:29 PM:

Rob Potter (@56):So....do you feel that a murderer, serial murderer, rapist, kidnapper, child molester etc. deserves the right to affect who makes policy? How about if that person will be imprisoned for the remainder of their life, and so will never return to free society? Would you still feel that way if it was your husband/wife/child who was the victim?

Yes.

Now that I have that out of the way: this is a piece of cheap rhetoric: it's akin to the ticking time bomb; Meant to force people to show themselves hypocrites or monsters.

That said: It's not my job to make that decision if it's my family/friends/self. If it was we would still have weregeld and private vendetta. We don't because people aren't fair when they feel they've been wronged.

It's why I could never sit on a jury for someone accused of torture during interrogation. I could never be sure I was being fair to the accused.

Nicole: That (the issue of revocation) is one of the stumbling blocks of discussing, "Rights". We pose them as unassailable (Congress shall make no law, Shall not be infringed; Certain unalienable rights). Then we pass laws/make decisions (clear and present danger) to curtail them.

But, at bedrock, we pretend that some things are absolute. The only right which can't really be taken away is choice. You can tell me I can't do something, but if it's something which I am actually capable of doing, all that can be done is to punish me for doing it. the choice to do the thing, or not, can't be taken away, save by force.

So yes, ultimately, for all my sincere belief that some things ought to be unalienable, I don't really believe that "rights" are absolute. They are agreed to.

I just happen to think that the franchise is important enough (in what it does) that removing it should be very limited (probably to treason; for which we have a very high bar).

#81 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 03:00 PM:

Huh, I (thought I) posted a previous version of this, but it's not showing up. No doubt I didn't wait long enough, or fumbled the buttons, or something. So, sorry this is delayed.

Lee@78: Trust me, I read your entire comment before responding to it.

In particular, you said "a lot of people do seem to think that there are absolute rights which have the force of natural law, and that unexpressed assumption causes a lot of friction in conversations about rights." In response, I quoted a fairly high-profile example of somebody expressing that assumption.

#82 ::: Potters Pig ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 06:15 PM:

Sorry, you break the social contract, you lose your voice in society. Yes rights are granted to you, but there's an implied part of a contract. Specifically - you uphold your part and don't break the rules that govern the society.

You don't like it, then leave.

Let's hope this issue doesn't reach our shores in America.

#83 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 06:56 PM:

Potters Pig @ 82:

I'm so glad that you've taken the time to engage thoroughly with the discussion in this thread. Here I was, distracted by all the interesting points made about freedom and rights and representation that I'd never really thought about before, but your fine argument really made me realize how silly that was. Thanks.

(Free clues: not everyone is capable of leaving; people who don't like it should be able to work to change what they don't like; the US is not always the shining example of how things ought to be done.)

#84 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 07:29 PM:

There are certain classes of offense for which one should lose the vote forever.

I'm thinking of influence peddling and vote buying sorts of crimes though, where it's a little more of a logical extension from the crime, and not just a revenge thing.

#85 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 07:43 PM:

eric, like IL Gov. Blagodaryouvasevitch, right?

#86 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 08:51 PM:

Xopher -- yup.

#87 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2009, 10:58 PM:

eric, #84: Good point. Crimes that involve tampering with franchise should logically invoke the permanent loss of franchise for the criminal upon conviction; that's in balance. You tried to mess with other people's right to vote, so you never get to vote again.

#88 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 12:34 AM:

eric: Good points, and I'd be willing to add them to treason on the list of lost franchise.

Potter's Pig:, nice to see you admit you are someone elses property. Me, I'm a free man, and your bald assertions of how it ought to be don't cut no ice with me.

If you have an argument to make, feel free, otherwise, there's not much point paying any attention to you, because actual reasons (on both sides) have been given.

Under your rules a quick law, which makes something everyone does a crime, and is then selectively enforced, makes it possible to just disenfranchise those one doesn't want voting.

#89 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 01:00 AM:

Nancy @76, didn't Heinlein write some non-fiction stuff in Expanded Universe about restricting the franchise to people who pass tests? Or maybe I'm confusing him with another author.

#90 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 01:54 AM:

Avram @ 89: In the late 1960s, John W. Campbell Jr. devoted at least one Analog editorial to this argument. Of course, this being JWCjr, the primary underlying purpose was probably to incite vigorous discussion [1], as distinct from being an actual personal belief that restricting the voting franchise in this way would be an optimum solution to the problems alluded to. [2]

[1] To use an extreme euphemism.
[2] Not that these are, necessarily, mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, JWCjr is no longer available for further direct comment on the topic . . .

#91 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 03:11 AM:

Potters Pig: Are you in favor of denying criminals and ex-convicts the right to drive? To use the 911 services? To have listed telephone numbers? To collect stock dividends? To marry, divorce, or adopt? Is there a reason behind your endorsement of the particular lines drawn so far other than that's where they are now?

#92 ::: Russell Coker ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 05:21 AM:

Terry@88:
Currently the drug laws affect a significant portion of the population and are selectively enforced. We can watch the news any day of the week and see articles about celebrity drug addicts who somehow never get prosecuted, but 1/6 of the jail population is poor people who have small amounts of drugs for personal use.

Alcohol laws are a similar issue. A significant portion of the Australian population drink before the age of 18 and I expect that a larger portion of the US population drink when under-age (which I believe varies from 18 to 21 by state).

#93 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 06:03 AM:

91: or, perhaps, the right to the protection of the police and criminal justice system? Is it just me or is this an argument for outlawry?

#94 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 09:29 AM:

Russell Coker #92: Currently the drug laws affect a significant portion of the population and are selectively enforced.

Selective enforcement! Ah, I've been flailing about for that precise phrase for a while now. Thank you!

#95 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 11:14 AM:

This seems pertinent here.

My opinions about the death penalty are ambivalent*, but doesn't that qualify as denial of due process?

* As in, I'm not opposed to it in principle, but it's painfully obvious that the way we currently implement it is badly upgefuct.

#96 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 11:36 AM:

In re taking away the franchise for vote tampering and the like: I've been wondering about civil war.

On the other hand, letting a small number (except for civil war) of criminals vote might be worth it in exchange for not having the scary precedent of restricting the franchise.

#89 ::: Avram: I think you're right, though I think it was more like playing with ideas than strong advocacy. IIRC, one was permitting only women who'd had children to vote, and another was requiring the ability to solve quadratic equations.

I've been tempted myself to only permit written votes on the grounds that if you can't even remember the candidates' names, you aren't interested enough.

On the other hand, I can't think of a case of Heinlein ever looking at the risks of restricting the franchise, though the rather color-blind society in ST may be an effort to head off a possible objection.

This essay, about Privileging the Hypothesis (that which hypotheses get chosen affect the shape of the resulting argument) fits in with the topic. See also Overton Window.

#97 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 12:16 PM:

Potter's Pig @82, Specifically - you uphold your part and don't break the rules that govern the society.

90-100 percent of people have broken the rules of society at least some times in their lifes.

Rob Potter @61 and 62, see above.

Rob Potter @56, So....do you feel that a murderer, serial murderer, rapist, kidnapper, child molester etc. deserves the right to affect who makes policy? How about if that person will be imprisoned for the remainder of their life, and so will never return to free society? Would you still feel that way if it was your husband/wife/child who was the victim?

There are people who have done pretty serious harm to people close to me without breaking any laws. Should I ask for their voting rights to be revoked, too?

Terry Karney @88 Under your rules a quick law, which makes something everyone does a crime, and is then selectively enforced, makes it possible to just disenfranchise those one doesn't want voting.

Great point.

All that said, I agree with eric @84.

#98 ::: Stephan Brun ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 02:22 PM:

I am a big fan of reason and rhetoric, and I have had occasion to observe the power of the latter up close.*)

I have long been of the opinion that imprisonment as currently implemented is just slavery by another name. Torture is the idea that violence makes one tell the truth; treating prisoners badly is the idea that violence makes one behave ethically. (I understand that most people do not think that far, but I think this nicely illustrates the problem with the model.)

Rights are those which it would be a vice to break. That is: people have a right to do virtuous things, and also the indifferent things, including those that are ill-advised, such as those detrimental to one's health, but not the vices. I therefore have to agree with Terry Karney: rights cannot ethically be revoked. There is no way to revoke a right and remain a good person. That evil people revoke rights is not an argument for revoking them oneself.

I would argue for a reform of prison, where prisoners are trained in reason (for easy convincement) and ethics (preferably accepted by ethical philosophy; Westboro-style ethics is ill-advised) and in which discussions are held debating the ethical status of the crime committed. It ought to be possible to have the sentence commuted or revoked based on such discussion, e.g. in the case of narcotics laws. Ideally it should even be an option to have the law repealed, should the discussion end unfavourably, by having a judge present, for instance. Otherwise, the convict becomes convinced that what he did was wrong, and should never do it again, in the same way a rational person does not kick electrical appliances when they fail: because they knows it will do no good.

eric @84: I tentatively agree, but with one proviso: voting rights revocation should be for a limited time only. A newly good person should not be prevented from voting. Hmm, the more I think about it, the more it seems it is just revenge-based. I withdraw my agreement.

*) Because of my current disability, I currently live in a building for people cared for by the council, a category that includes former drunkards and drug addicts. I have been able to prevent a break-in, and make a neighbour return stolen property, solely through the use of my limited powers of persuasion. The attempted break-in was conducted by a man distraught at the loss of his wallet in the flat he was breaking into, and I persuaded him the wallet would still be there in the morning, and that he wouldn't need it anyway until my neighbour had awakened. The other neighbour, having somewhat weak skills at reasoning, actually turned the property over to the police after I convinced him that stolen property was not something one did not care about, and he apparently now considers me something of a mentor.

(By the gods, wall o' text)

#99 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 04:28 PM:

In one of Nevil Shute’s novels¹ he describes a system of multiple voting in which everyone gets a basic vote and can earn extra votes by accomplishment and contribution to their country, up to a maximum of seven where the seventh vote is awarded to only a few people, as a high honor for special merit.  In such a system, maybe one or more extra votes could be forfeited by being convicted of a crime.

_________
¹ In the Wet.  My link is to Wikipedia;  I don’t have the book any more, so I’m not certain if the Wikipedia article is accurate, but it fits my memory of the book.

#100 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2009, 04:33 PM:

#98 ::: Stephan Brun:

If the purpose of prison is to teach prisoners to behave ethically, then it's not just a matter of discussion, the prisoners also have to be treated ethically.

As far as I can tell, most people in the US think that part of rehabilitation is for prisoners to put up with arbitrary authority.

#101 ::: Stephan Brun ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2009, 02:06 AM:

Indeed, part of being good is being good towards others, even when they themselves behave viciously. Protection, for a time, as long as they are a danger, is justified. But, like you say, prisoners have to be dealt with ethically. I agree fully.

#102 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2009, 07:16 AM:

Nancy #100: Actually, I'd say that most Americans (or at least their leadership) have given up entirely on rehabilitation. They've also left restitution to the tort system... and consigned the prisons to pure retribution.

The reasoning goes like this: Nevermind what they did, they're criminals, they deserve anything they get. Daily rape and beatings, being locked in a glass box, whatever -- they're "bad people", so any punishment whatsoever is automagically justified. (That'll teach'em, alright!) Moreover, "everyone knows" that prison doesn't "cure" criminality, so there's no reason to let them be actual free people, just because they've finished their sentence.... (See: parole system, Megan's List, lack of halfway houses, $50 and the street, etc etc etc.)

Welcome to the Bully Society. :-(

#103 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2009, 11:19 AM:

eric #84: FWIW, in Germany, prisoners who are sentenced to a year or longer lose their passive voting rightfor five years, i.e. they cannot be voted into public offices.
The right to vote can be suspended for two to five years as part of the sentence for certain "political" felonies, especially treason, the forgery and falsification of ballots, the coercion, intimidation and bribery of voters.
Since that not only shows a lack of respect for the rules of society, but a clear contempt for the voting process, I think this is quite appropriate.

John Stanning #99
Such a system of multiple votes would be, of course, unequal. The only explicite voting system of this kind actually established (I know details of) was the 1909 one of the Kingdom of Saxony: Every male taxpayer of 25 years or older had one vote, men of over 50 years had another vote, men with a high school diploma got another vote, high income and/or big assets would give him up to three more votes.
This system (meant to combat the labour movement) did obviously try to cement the status quo, but it is hard to think of a mutiple vote system that would not explicitely do that. It must benefit the currently influential groups, of it would never be established, and so it will continue to further those who are most like the original ruling groups.
The hurdles for any democratic change would be high: Once there is a list of accomplishments that make someone a more worthy citizen than her neighbor, those worthy citizens have an disproportional influence on the processes that amend this list and will not like to reduce/dilute this influence. Representing new values born from societal development would be hard.
If for example the US had developed such a system in the 50s, it would probably have included that kind of bonus votes for good citizens that would give the world US presidents of the McCain mold, presumably.
And, apart from political leanings, how strong would the temptation be to give more votes to people who give the most to society, somehow leading to multiple votes for politicians, party members etc. i.e. "those who obviously care"?

No, I do not like this idea at all.

#104 ::: Jörg Raddatz ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2009, 11:30 AM:

John Stanning #99
Don't get me wrong, I do not believe that you proposed such a system.
I just argued against the idea. And, having now read the wikipedia article on the book - well. The book is obviously quite pro-monarchist and conservative, so this fits well with my thoughts about multiple votes.
Quote: "Everyone gets a basic vote. Other votes can be earned for education (including a commission in the armed forces), earning one's living overseas for two years, raising two children to the age of 14 without divorcing, being an official of a Christian church, or having a high earned income. The seventh vote [...] is only given at the Queen's discretion by Royal Charter."

And that is "seen as a necessary reform of democracy"? Sheesh.

#105 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2009, 12:49 PM:

I believe the title of the story is, "The Seventh Vote"

#106 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2009, 06:14 PM:

Nancy @96: That's good in a universally-literate society - I like the idea, in fact. But it does tend to bias against immigrants and the traditionally-disadvantaged. Go ahead, vote for Григорий Григорьевич Кустов. Properly handwritten and legible, please. And you don't get to bring in a piece of paper.

Also, if you think that the fights over spoiled ballots and "what did the voter want to do" is bad now...

In general, I think the politicians are very happy with any situation that gets closer to "private game for us", eliminating that messy thing called a vote. I do think that prisoner disenfranchisement, especially in a world where "Nearly a quarter of black State inmates (24%) and Hispanic inmates (23%) were drug offenders, compared to a seventh of white inmates (14%)", nearly 90% of the growth in Federal inmate population (1995-2003) by "most serious offence" were "Drug" or "public-order" offences (public order includes weapons offences, but not violent crime), and per capita, in each age category, black incarceration rates are 6 times as high as whites (overall almost 10 times as high), is a tricky little thing. (all statistics from U.S. Dept. of Justice "Prisoners in 2005" bulletin).

I also, however, think that my previous point of there being a fundamental disconnect between those who think "justify why prisoners should get X" and "justify why prisoners shouldn't get X" applies, and answering "justify why" with "taking it away serves no purpose" doesn't answer that question (similarly answering "justify why not" with "they broke the law; they clearly don't care about making it").

#107 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2009, 06:53 PM:

Oh, missing footnote:
Apologies to Terry and other Russian speakers for that horrible translation.

#108 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2009, 03:34 AM:

The commonest multiple-vote system would be company shareholder voting, where it's not "one man, one vote", but "one share, one vote"* (and unnatural persons‡ — trusts, partnerships, other companies — can vote as if they're natural persons).

So one or two big shareholders with millions of shares/votes can outvote a large majority of shareholders with a few thousand each. (Some of the reasons given are similar to the franchise arguments; that they "have more invested" in the society/company.) Even if I'm (a small) part of an unnatural person, like a superannuation trust, it can be extremely hard indeed for me to sway the voting intent of the trustees.

This is one of several reasons I have for arguing against the conversion of many mutual societies and co-operatives, where the voting rights are either equal or much more equal than that described above, to companies.

* There can also be different classes of shares, some without voting rights, or with a fraction of the weight of others.

‡ You! I saw that smirk.
Sometimes called artificial persons? Sounds quite SFnal.

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