Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” (Article 21.1)
The International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR) which states that “every citizen shall have the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage….”
the Charter of the United Nations which (in Article 1, para 2) states that the purpose of the United Nations is to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for “ fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”
International Convention for Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which requires “the states to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction…political rights, in particular the right to participate in elections- to vote and to stand for election- on the basis of universal and equal suffrage”
Rights to Prisoners is internationally guided by the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
Rule 60 (2) indicates that “the regime of the institution should seek to minimize any differences between prison life and life at liberty which tend to lessen the responsibility of the prisoners or the respect due to their dignity as human beings”.
Rule 61 of the said Rules indicates that “the treatment of prisoners should emphasize not their exclusion from the community, but their continuing part in it.
The Rules have far reaching effect on the right to suffrage for the prisoners
Electoral Rights may be seen from three perspectives:
Right to registration in the electoral rolls
Right to vote at elections
Right to contest for elections
Voting Rights for Prisoners: arguments in favour
Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy, any attempt made to restrict that right has to be made on the basis of a compelling reason that meet specific legal tests.
Denying prison inmates the right to vote is likely to send messages that undermine respect for the law and democracy
To deny the prison inmates the right to vote is to lose an important means of teaching them democratic values and social responsibility
Any democracy built upon the principles of inclusiveness, equality and citizen participation cannot deny the rights to vote to a specific category of citizens only because they are confined by the government system
The focus of prison administration has totally shifted from a control centric approach to an approach of reforms and rehabilitation- granting democratic rights to vote is a basic prerequisite for such an approach
The restriction in voting makes the prisoners lesser citizens and place them outside the law that applies to others without there being a demonstrable need to do so
In its latest report on civil rights in the UK (2008), the UN human rights committee has expressed concern that British prisoners do not have the vote and stated that "the general deprivation of the right to vote for convicted prisoners may not meet the requirements" of the UN's human rights covenant.
Currently, convicted British prisoners are not entitled to vote.
Section 16 deals with disqualifications for registration into an electoral roll. Any person disqualified from voting under the provisions of any law relating to
Corrupt practices and
Offences in connection with elections will have his name struck off from the electoral rolls
Sub-section 2 of Section 20, while defining the meaning of ordinary resident states, “a person… who is detained at any prison or other legal custody at any place, shall not, by reason thereof be deemed to be ordinary resident therein”
Note: Does it mean that he shall be deemed to be ordinary resident of the place where he should have lived had he not been detained?
Internationally, allowing voting rights to prisoners in most of the countries followed landmark judgments by the highest Courts of the countries
In India, unfortunately, in a Judgment in Chandra Pradhan Vs. State, Supreme Court negated direction to allow undertrial prisoners the right to vote
Since 1997, however, 12 years have passed and across the world landmark verdicts have been given by the Highest Courts in favour of enfranchisement of the prisoners
There may be further PIL in the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Government for amendment in the provision of the RP Act, 1951
Way out: Advocacy with the political executive
Civil society organisations, especially the rights based ones, may mount increased pressures on the elected representatives to bring about changes in the RP Act,1951 to extend voting rights to the prisoners
Initiation of a debate in the society may also help
West Bengal has the most proactive Correctional Services Act in the Country
There is an enabling provision in the CS Act of the state, which states, “ every prisoner shall, subject to the provisions of any law for the time being in force, have the right to vote in the elections to the State Legislature or Parliament or to any local authority
Thus the stage is set for granting voting rights to the prisoners once the provision of the RP Act, 1951 (Sec-62 (5)) is amended.
Can the right be extended in the present scheme of things for the Panchayat and Municipal Elections?