Members' Research Service By / September 8, 2023

Prisoners’ voting rights in European Parliament elections

Disenfranchisement broadly means depriving someone of a legal right or privilege. Nowadays the term is often used to mean taking away the right to vote from a person or a group. Reasons for this can include residence abroad, a criminal conviction, intellectual disability or mental illness.

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Written by Martina Prpic.

In the European Union, provisions concerning prisoners’ right to vote vary from one Member State to another. While a significant number of EU Member States place no restrictions at all on prisoners voting, many Member States deprive inmates of the right to vote, depending on the type of offence committed and/or the length of their sentence. A small number of Member States deprive inmates of the right to vote permanently, even after they have served their sentences. In those cases where inmates do have the right to vote, the process is facilitated in various ways, including postal votes, proxy votes and the creation of special polling stations.

The arguments in favour and against disenfranchisement on account of a criminal conviction are well known. Those in favour argue that depriving a person of the right to vote is part of the punitive process, while those against argue that voting is a right linked to citizenship and when individuals are convicted and lose their right to liberty, they do not cease to exist as citizens. They argue that deprivation of the right to vote should not be part of the punitive process because there is no evidence supporting the claim that disenfranchisement acts as a significant deterrent.

The current European Electoral Act on elections to the European Parliament does not provide for a uniform electoral system applicable in all the EU Member States. It contains a set of common principles that are to be upheld in the different domestic laws applicable to European elections. It does not define expressly and precisely who is entitled to vote or stand for election. Nor does it contain specific provisions concerning the exercise of the right to vote of prisoners. The definition of such provisions remains within the competence of each Member State. This briefing looks at the international and European standards applicable to the right to vote of prisoners. It also examines the existing provisions in the 27 EU Member States in relation the European Parliament elections.

This briefing is one in a series of publications looking ahead to the 2024 European elections.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Prisoners’ voting rights in European Parliament elections‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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