12 March 2013

Lag's law: no prisoner votes in the independence referendum...

Today, the Scottish Government have introduced the "paving Bill" to Holyrood which will finally settle the franchise for the independence referendum in 2014. If passed, it will finally extinguish the hopes of expats, diaspora Scots and those living furth of Scotland who wanted to vote in the poll.

Much of the attention has zoomed in on the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds, which ministers hope to affect by establishing a Register of Young Voters alongside the local government register. It is envisaged that this young voters roll will not be published.  

I was more interested in section 3 of the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill, which provides that "a convicted person is legally incapable of voting in an independence referendum for the period during which the person is detained in a penal institution in pursuance of the sentence imposed on the person". Those on remand, awaiting trial, will accordingly be able to vote, either by proxy, or by post. In the Policy Memorandum which accompanies the draft proposals, Ministers make two points:

"While the franchise at the referendum is a matter for the Scottish Parliament to determine, the franchise in Scotland (as throughout the UK) is a matter for the UK Parliament.  The UK Government announced in November 2012 that it would ask a committee of parliamentarians to consider a range of options set out by the Government in response to successive rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that the UK's ban on prisoners voting in elections to state legislatures breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Committee will report later in 2013. The ECHR ruling (and human rights case law) does not related to referendums, and convicted prisoners will not be able to vote in the referendum irrespective of whether UK electoral law is amended to extend the vote to prisoners for parliamentary elections before the referendum in 2014."

Despite the digression about the UK government, in essence, this means that Holyrood could but won't enfranchise prisoners, if it passes this Bill.  My question is, can they get away with it? In a post from last October, Love and Garbage thought not.  The Policy Memorandum doesn't provide any evidence to support its claim that referendums can be distinguished from elections, when it comes to prisoners' voting rights. Like all devolved legislatures, Holyrood is charged in its founding documents to observe the rights protected by the European Convention. Unlike Westminster, the Scottish Parliament can't assert sovereignty and shrug off the European Court's decision in Hirst v. the United Kingdom, which held that our blanket ban on prisoners voting was incompatible with the Convention (but didn't hold that all prisoners in all circumstances should be granted the right to vote).

Prima facie, the Scottish Ministers seem on solid ground. If we look at the section of the European Convention which recent prisoner voting rights litigation has been founded upon, it does seem to limit the ambit of the protected right to elections, as distinct from referendums. Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the Convention reads as follows:

"The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the people in the choice of the legislature."

The language used seems dispositive. On its face, A3P1 only applies to elections - not to referendums. The explicit reference to the "choice of the legislature" seems under underscore the point. If you dip into the European Court's legal archive, you'll find this understanding bourne out in the jurisprudence. See, for example, Bader v Austria decision of 1996 which held that A3P1 protections didn't extend to referendums, and more recently Niedzwiedz v Poland in 2008, concerning a complaint that the applicant had been deprived of a vote in Poland's referendum on EU accession. The Court explicitly held that:

"... the obligations imposed on the Contracting States by Article 3 of Protocol 1 are limited to "the choice of the legislature" and do not apply to the election of a Head of State or to referendums". 

That seems plain enough. Litigious prisoners with ardent pro- or anti-independence views will not, in all probability, have much luck in persuading Scottish Courts that the proposed disenfranchisement violates their fundamental rights, but we might feel a wrinkle here. In Hirst No. 2, the Grand Chamber of the European Court said (at para 59):

"... the right to vote is not a privilege. In the twenty-first century, the presumption in a democratic State must be in favour of inclusion".

In 2014, people in Scotland will decide collectively on whether or not to become a sovereign state. It is difficult to conceive of any more fundamental exercise of democracy than that.  While the European Court has held in the past that the language of A3P1 excludes referendums, is there not at least an argument to be made that a referendum on self-determination is not as other referendums, and accordingly, the principles of enfranchisement articulated in Hirst ought to apply, that prisoners ought to have a say?

A formalistic construction of the Convention clearly supports the Scottish Government position, and legally, I'd expect the proposed limits to the independence franchise to be upheld as compatible with the European Convention. One has to wonder, however, whether depriving those in jail of any say in their country's future abides by the spirit, if not the letter, of the European Court's judgment in Hirst, or represents "effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law" where "universal suffrage" is a "basic principle" worth upholding.  Even for the 7,500 or so folk who are currently bidies-in with Her Majesty.


  1. Completely ignoring the main thrust of your blog (apologies), is there any particular reason why the main electoral register can't be kept secret as well, thereby avoiding the need to have a separate one for whippersnappers? After all, I believe one of the reasons many people don't register to vote is because they're worried about the tax mannie or various other folk being able to get a hold of them - but I would be very much in favour of doing whatever we can to get rid of any barriers that stop people from exercising their democratic right.

    After all, it would be a strange situation indeed to be in where, for example, a convicted wife beater is able to vote, but his ex-wife is unable to, in fear of her ex-spouse looking up the electoral register to find her current whereabouts. Or a convicted fraudster is able to vote, but one of his victims, who has entered a spiral of debt as a result, is prevented from voting in case the bailiffs find them.

  2. (Obviously all that only really makes sense if we suppose prisoners get the right to vote eventually...)

  3. Doug,

    Isn't there an argument that such a list ought in general to be public, considering that participation in elections is in its essence, a public activity? Moreover, it might raise issues about people's ability properly to participate in elections as candidates, if they had to dig out their own demographic data in every constituency. Legally, however, registration law, its scope and exceptions, isn't something I'm familiar with.

  4. I dare say there is, which is why I'm wary of going all out to say "the register should be secret!!!!" Like you, I'm not overly familiar with all the ins and outs, so I suspect there are good reasons for it being public. But, on the other hand, it's not exactly unusual for something to be a certain way merely because it's how it's always been and no one has thought to change it!

    It's a conundrum, because while you're right that voting is a public activity, it's also meant to be private who you voted for (or even if you voted at all).

    Although if the strongest case for keeping it public did indeed come down to making it easier for candidates to collect voter data, I'd say it's even more in their interests for as many people as possible to be on the register - and if making it private facilitated that, I think that'd be more beneficial on the whole.

    Hmmmm, perhaps I'll start chucking some tweets out about it, see what people come out with.

  5. There are two versions of the electoral register. One is the full version and one is the edited version. It is the edited version that is for sale and you can request to have your name removed. Access to the full version is restricted to political parties, police and credit reference agencies. You can also go into an electoral registration office and physically view a copy of the full electoral register under supervision. So for someone to hunt down an ex partner they would need to know roughly where they lived to begin with and they would also have to give their details to the ERO to be able to view the register.

    Sometimes people get annoyed with canvassers if they have had their names removed from the edited version of the register -they may say you are not allowed to contact me. Many people don't understand why political parties have access to the full electoral register even though the clue is in the title I would say. But of course political parties can ONLY use the register for the purposes of campaigning - they could not pass on any details to a third party.

  6. Cheer up. It isn't as bad as all that. Of the 7,500 currently enjoying HM's hospitality, about 20% are on remand, so they'll get the vote.

  7. Yes, I think this Referendum should offer an escape clause for prisoners too.


  8. this guy will probably solve most of scotlands problems
    why did the apple go to the doctars

    because it had no skin.

    basically http://badkidsjokes.tumblr.com/ has some relevant stuff going down x