Unversal suffrage – almost there!

Yesterday was the centenary of my father’s birth. No telegram for Cyril though, he passed away in 1983. However, his sixty-nine years witnessed a great many changes, including universal suffrage. Or did it?

I ask because not everyone can vote and therefore we do not have true universal suffrage. There are exceptions, for good reason, but I think we need to look at these exceptions because I believe they need amending.

Let’s start with the exceptions I would keep.

Foreign nationals (apart from citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth countries resident in Britain) cannot vote, and I think this broadly correct. However, if we were to rigorously adopt the principle of no taxation without representation then there is a valid argument for giving the vote to those foreigners who work here. After all, what is the real difference between an Australian and an Austrian? The Austrian can vote in our local and European elections, can work and pay his taxes, yet has no say in how those taxes are spent. It is certainly an avenue worth looking at.

People convicted within the previous five years of illegal election practices cannot vote. Seems fair enough, an electoral equivalent of a driving ban.

And so to those categories I would change.

Young people under eighteen years old cannot vote at present. I support votes at sixteen, and since sixteen year olds can marry, work, join the army, etc, then I think they should have a say in how the country is run.

I would give the vote to members of the House of Lords. This second chamber is in desperate need of reform (acknowledged by all the main parties) and since members of the primary chamber can vote I see no reason to disallow Lords, Bishops and Royalty – and whoever ultimately replaces them.

Perhaps my most contentious change would be to enable prisoners to vote. Actually, it really ought to be described as changing the ban from automatic to becoming part of sentencing policy. Aside from the potential loophole which could come with a postal vote, since General Election results can be in force for five years it does seem harsh to prevent someone who may only have a day or week left of their sentence from voting. I wonder why someone given a short-term for a lesser crime should be treated the same as a long-term prisoner when it comes to voting, and it ought to be a part of the rehabilitation process. Allowing prisoners to vote also acts to prevent a police state, where people are locked up to curtail their democratic expression.

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5 Responses to Unversal suffrage – almost there!

  1. The principle of “no taxation without representation” surely applies to citizens. If I (a UK national) lived in Germany and did not like their taxes, I can go home – out of the jurisdiction of the German tax system. If however, I am resident in the UK and do not like the UK tax system, (i) I do not necessarily have anywhere to go, and (ii) as a citizen I should have a say and it should not potentially be over-ridden by non-citizens (who in theory can go home).

    Non citizens have limited protection against an oppressive tax regime by having the option of leaving and this should moderate the policy makers.

  2. “Perhaps my most contentious change would be to enable prisoners to vote.”

    I would also come out in favour of allowing some prisoners the right to vote. If those convicted of “illegal election practices” are explicitly deprived of the right to vote, I would argue that any deprivation of the right to vote should be explicitly part of a court’s sentence.

    I would find it hard to justify sentencing many offenders to also be deprived of their vote – loss of liberty is usually an adequate punishment without also imposing temporary “civic death”.

    Perhaps a “middle way” might be that a prisoner is not allowed to vote in an election unless they are expected to be freed during the term of office of anyone elected in that election.

    (So if you have just received a six year sentence, you would be allowed to vote in the 2014 General Election because you would be freed before the subsequent election – but not in next year’s Euro and Council elections)

  3. And as a final separate thought:
    “not everyone can vote and therefore we do not have true universal suffrage”

    I would also argue that until we have an election system where a vote actually has some meaning – or at the very least an approximately equal value irrespective of where you live and who you support – we do not have “true universal suffrage”.

    But I suspect you agree on this point!

  4. The fault with the shorthand way of writing these blogs is that to the pedant they are littered with half-truths and inaccuracies. For example, my Australian/Austrian example applies to General elections only, which does beg another question: why the difference? Why should someone be able to vote in local elections (where their vote has greater power) and not in national elections?

    It is not just the level of taxation that is set by Parliament, but what it is also spent on. So, the tax rate may not be at all punitive and therefore not a driver to live elsewhere, but one may want to support the spending plans of one or other party.

    I think that prisoner voting should be entirely at the discretion of a judge. There are so many grey areas that I find it difficult to think of a single simple rule that would cover all eventualities.

    As to introducing a form of proportional representation – YES!

  5. my Australian/Austrian example applies to General elections only, which does beg another question: why the difference?

    This is an interesting point and partly unsettles my first comment.

    I have argued that foreign nationals should not be allowed to vote in UK elections (and vice versa). I am on slightly tricky ground in that part of my argument is saying “this is my country, and I – together with my fellow citizens – should be allowed to determine how it is run”. This might be thought of as border-line xenophobic – but if the concept of “country” is to have a meaning, there also has to be a concept of “citizenship” (whose country is it?) and ultimately the citizens have to be allowed to determine who runs the country. (And who can make binding treaties that restrict how the country can operate – let’s not bring the EU sovereignty issue into this debate!)

    Restricting the franchise to citizens rather than mere residents seems to me to be sensible. The alternative is that a non-citizen group could take control of a country. This is not fanciful – I think it has been a concern in the Baltic states where there is/was a substantial non-native Russian population.

    Your “General elections only” challenge then comes into play. The logic of my position should say that foreign nationals should not be allowed to vote in local elections either. So the natives of Earls Court can sleep easy! But I am not a “native” of the county in which I am (to use my words) a “mere resident” – so should I (an English UK citizen) be allowed to vote in the (English) council elections where I live? In “my county” development and housing is a key issue; natives tend to be against, but non-natives like me tend to be more tolerant of proposals for new housing. Us immigrants may swamp the local opinion – and I am not sure that is right.

    (And whilst we are on the matter, if this Englishman (native of a southern English county) happened to live in say, Edinburgh, should he be allowed to vote in the Scottish Independence referendum?)

    Part of my quandary would be solved if I could become a “citizen” of the county where I currently reside by some form of local naturalisation (reflecting a period of qualifying residency, a commitment to the county – and a renunciation of my previous county affiliation). However that option is not open to me and I will forever be a “comer-in”. In the absence of “local naturalisation” my argument should say that I should not be voting in local elections. General Elections are OK – I’m English/UK, European Elections are OK – I’m European (according to my last passport!).

    I’m not sure that the “franchise” boils down to “no taxation without representation”. I think it is more a case of entitlement to “a say about the place where I belong”.

    ( http://wp.me/pSvdp-pP )

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