The Prisoner Voting Dilemma: A Comparison between the Positions in the United Kingdom and South Africa


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In spite of the turbulent nature of its democracy, post-1994 South Africa has a more liberal approach to human rights than many so-called liberal democracies. This is largely due to the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. South Africa can boast a progressive constitutional jurisprudence on voting rights. This is evident from the 1999 case of August v Electoral Commission in which the constitutional court decided to give prisoners the franchise. South Africa’s liberal voting policy is further evident from the recent decision to allow South Africans abroad to vote in the 2014 national elections. Expatriates can now both register and cast their votes abroad. In contrast with the fairly progressive South African position, the United Kingdom still does not allow prisoners to vote. All prisoners currently serving sentences are prevented from voting under section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. In 2011, the United Kingdom prime minister Cameron revealed his strongly conservative sentiments on the matter when he stated that even contemplating giving the vote to prisoners makes him physically ill. In spite of a December 2013 draft bill recommending that certain categories of prisoners should vote, United Kingdom prisoners are still barred from voting. In the United Kingdom the issue of prisoner voting has resulted in a prolonged stand-off between the United Kingdom government and the European court of human rights after the controversial case of Hirst (2). Some believe that the strong opposition to prisoner voting is not fundamentally about prisoner rights but about the United Kingdom’s insistence not to be dominated by the European court of human rights in domestic human rights matters.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of South African Law
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015


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