Foreign Policy Blogs

Lessons on voting

Europe has certainly made headlines recently, and unfortunately not for good things. From an ongoing volcanic ash plume out of Iceland to the Greek debt crisis, it appears that it is Europe’s turn to hold the news spotlight.

One of the many headlines coming out of Europe is of course the general election held last week in the UK that resulted in the first hung parliament in 36 years. It is still unclear what the ultimate political outcome of the election will be, but it is certain that some questions will need to be answered. Namely, in a story not covered extensively here in the US, how is it possible that so many people could be turned away from voting and how should this effect what happens next?

As detailed by the UK Human Rights Blog, on top of the hundreds of people who could not vote due to closed polling stations and ballot shortages is the ongoing debate over prisoner suffrage in the UK. An estimated 85,000 people were not allowed to vote in last week’s election due to their prisoner or ex-convict status.

The situation strangely echoes that of the Bush-Gore Presidential Election in 2000. Then and now, the suffrage of prisoners and ex-cons has also been a hot topic of debate in the US, but the British situation differs in that European states that categorically ban prisoner voting must also contend with adverse decisions from the European Court of Human Rights as well as public opinion.  The support of the European Court is particularly important since prisoner rights always tend to be a tricky sell for politicians with the general public. The position of the Court also opens the door to potential domestic legal action based on established law for compensation when the government continues to deny voting rights, even to those currently behind bars. This places the issue more directly in the spotlight than one finds in the US, and more directly posited as a human rights issue than a political one.

Coming from an American perspective, it seems a bit ironic that prisoner rights continue to be a significant issue in the UK when the world’s most well-known organization dedicated to prisoner issues, Amnesty International, was first founded by a British lawyer in 1961. But given the support in favor of prisoners from the European Court, the far-reaching appeal that Amnesty International has today, and the current coverage that the issue is receiving from leading human rights observers in the UK, I am more hopeful that the issue will be resolved favorably there than I am with the issue in the US. As the future of the Human Rights Act of 1998 continues to be debated in British politics, it should be interesting to see what the ultimate fallout and lessons learned from last week’s General Election is for voting rights and suffrage culture in the UK, both for marginalized groups such as prisoners and the general public at large.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa