UK Lawmakers Vote To Deny Prisoners Right To Vote

LONDON (AP) - British lawmakers voted on Thursday to continue barring prisoners from voting in national elections, defying a European human rights court's ruling that inmates must be allowed to cast ballots.

The nonbinding vote doesn't change Britain's obligation to honor the European court's judgments, but it's not clear how the government will be able to satisfy both the court and the parliamentarians, who must approve any change in the law.

The issue has enraged victims' groups and stirred up old grievances about the power of European courts to overrule Britain's elected lawmakers. Many British lawmakers are deeply opposed to changing a centuries-old law, and Prime Minister David Cameron has said it makes him "physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners."

Unlike many other European nations, convicted criminals held in British jails have been denied the chance to vote in national elections since 1870. Those awaiting trial are not restricted.

Britain is obliged to honor the European court's rulings, but Parliament bucked its writ Thursday night, voting 234 to 22 to maintain the ban. Even though the vote isn't binding, it hugely complicates any attempt to carry out the court's ruling.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve said Thursday that he anticipated "a drawn-out dialogue between ourselves and the court" over the issue.

Britain was ordered to change its rules on prisoner voting after convict John Hirst - jailed for the 1979 ax murder of his landlady - won a long legal battle to prove that the legislation was an unfair restriction of prisoners' rights. The High Court in London initially dismissed his case in 2001, but in 2005 the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France, ruled in his favor.

In November, with Britain's government still refusing to implement the court's ruling, the Council of Europe set a six-month deadline for the U.K. to introduce appropriate legislation to comply.

In a video posted to YouTube, Hirst said he would celebrate for all prisoners who would be granted a vote, "including those murderers, rapists, pedophiles." His comments sparked outrage among victims of serious crime.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said Wednesday the U.K. won't allow dangerous criminals to take part in elections but may offer the vote to inmates serving less than four years in jail.

Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and some other European nations have no restrictions on a prisoner's right to vote - while EU countries including Italy, Malta and Poland exclude only those who have committed serious offenses.

In the U.S., states set their own rules on the voting rights of people convicted of crimes. Misdemeanor convictions do not typically result in the loss of voting rights, yet people serving time for felonies lose their right to vote in all states but Maine and Vermont.

U.S. state laws vary widely on restoring the right to vote once a sentence is complete.

In 38 states, felons' voting rights are automatically restored upon completion of their sentence, which in some states includes probation and parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Kentucky and Virginia, only a pardon by the governor allows an ex-felon to vote again. In other states, people convicted of certain crimes are barred from voting for life, while others can have their rights restored.


Sylvia Hui and Raphael G. Satter in London and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this story.