History

Prisoners were able to vote in the UK in the late 1960s

The question of prisoners gaining the right to vote has been in the news today following the government’s announcement that it is going to abolish the blanket ban on prisoners voting in general elections. However, although in today’s media coverage the ban is widely dated to the 1870 Forfeiture Act, it is has been overlooked that the ban, in fact, was removed for a couple of years during the 1960s.

The 1870 Act stated that those convicted of a felony could not vote in elections for Parliament, and covered England, Wales and what became Northern Ireland (but not Scotland due to its different legal system and where the ban has different legal roots, another small error in the coverage).

The Criminal Law Act 1967 and the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 abolished the division between felonies and misdemeanours and, as a result, removed that ban on voting in Parliamentary elections. This was not an accidental oversight but followed a specific recommendation from the Criminal Law Review Committee in the mid-1960s that the specific penalties for felonies, such as being banned from voting for Parliament, did not need to be continued via other means.

The ban was however restored by the Representation of the People Act 1969. Oddly, it did not restore the ban on prisoners standing for election, which had also been rescinded in 1967; that was to become a political hot issue in the 1980s with the IRA.

I am not aware of any evidence one way or another as to whether or not any prisoners did take up the opportunity of voting between the 1967 and 1969 acts in Parliamentary by-elections. If anyone knows otherwise…

6 responses to “Prisoners were able to vote in the UK in the late 1960s”

  1. There has, indeed, been a good degree of misreporting of this.

    The Forfeiture Act 1870 was actually a liberalising measure removing some of the common law consequences of “civic death” in England, Wales and Ireland which date back to at least the 14thC and then re-enacting some of these in a new statutory form.

    The issue which drove the legislation in 1870 was that until then convicted felons would lose all rights to property, which had adverse effects on the children and wives of those convicted.

    It has also been somewhat forgotten that Section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1870 only actually dealt with the disenfranchisement of voters convicted of a felony and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of twelve months or more. It did not remove the right to vote from all serving prisoners – which actually makes the four year proposal less liberal than the pre-1967 position.

    And what no-one appears to have reported is that the position did not apply in Scotland until 1969 – the archaic “felony” and “misdemeanour” distinction not being part of Scots Criminal Law and the 1870 Act having no application.

    This is confirmed in the 1965 Criminal Law Revision Committee (whose report became the substance of the 1967 Act referred to in the post) noting at paragraph 79 that “It seems to us unnecessary to preserve any of these consequences [disenfranchisement, etc.] in relation to any offences, especially as no similar consequences follow from conviction in Scotland.” So there is are no “different legal routes” in Scotland – just the 1969 Act.

    Of course, the problem for prisoners was that until 2000 there was no postal voting on demand and proxy voting was restricted to certain categories – which didn’t include “I’m in prison and can’t get out to vote in person”.

    The King’s Bench in England in ex parte Jones 2 Ad & El 437 refused a writ of habeas corpus by a prisoner in custody but only on a misdemeanour to be released to enable him to exercise the franchise.

    A convicted prisoner serving a period of imprisonment in Scotland before 1969 or elsewhere in the UK between 1967 and 1969 who happened to be out on licence at the time would have been legally entitled to vote, but otherwise there would have been no mechanism for the vote to be exercised (unless they happened to have an existing unrevoked proxy appointment).

    The 1969 amendments did not affect the right to stand for election – which is why the law was changed in a hurry in 1981 after Bobby Sands was elected.

  2. In the 1955 Sinn Fein stood convicted prisoners in all 12 Northern Ireland constituencies and two were very narrowly elected in two-candidate contests. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, an election court disqualified the Sinn Fein victor and replaced him with the Ulster Unionist. (This was on the grounds that a felon could stand for parliament but not take his seat.) In Mid-Ulster the procedure was more prolonged, including a by-election, after which BOTH candidates (and successive victors) were declared disqualified, and the second by-election won by an Independent Unionist.
    In 1981 Bobby Sands died within weeks of being elected, as was probably part of the Sinn Fein plan.

  3. Indeed, Irish Nationalists in their various manifestations have been the main political grouping affected by issues of prisoners and qualification to vote or retain a seat in the House.

    Includes O’Donovan Rossa in Tipperary in 1870, whose seat was vacated on the same day that the Forfeiture Act 1870 recieved its first reading.

    The subsquent election with another candidate again ended up in the election courts.

  4. I was a grad. student in England and commented to a British subject friend my surprise in seeing a clip on the news of prisoners in a London yard (probably Wandsworth) waiting in line to vote. His immediate reply: Well they’re citizens aren’t they!

    Impossible here in the USA. Even unable to vote in many states after release.

    bc … resident from late 1966 through 1969.

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