I’ve said before that I would have no particular problem with those on very short prison sentences — a few weeks, a month — being permitted to vote. And if some countries, like the Swiss, want to allow all prisoners to vote, good luck to them. But there is obviously nothing illegitimate about preferring the path whereby prisoners don’t get to vote. Are we in Britain really to have foreigners tell us who gets to vote in our elections?
Just for now, let’s set aside discussions of whether human rights exist at all as standardly conceived (they don’t), or whether the human rights doctrine is fundamentally illiberal (it is) or incompatible with basic tenets of Conservatism (manifestly). For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that there are indeed things called “human rights” and that where they exist it is a good idea to respect them in some way. Does it even begin to be plausible that denying certain categories of people the vote is a denial of human rights?
A human right is supposed to be something that anyone is entitled to merely in virtue of being human. It isn’t a matter of pragmatics, of something being a human right in one context or given one history but not another. You don’t lack a “right to life” in some country just because its history is different from another countries in which there is a “right to life”. It isn’t that you have a particular human right because you are educated or have property. It’s doubtful whether, conceived correctly, a human right could really depend on something such as your age — as if you could somehow have such a right when you are young but not when you are old, say.
Yet in Britain, voting has not been classically conceived of as an expression of any fundamental right but, instead, a pragmatic reflection of the state of society at the time. For example, does anyone other than an extreme Democrat really believe that there ought to have been universal suffrage in the UK in the fourteenth century? After the Second World War, General McArthur ruled Japan from 1945 to 1951. There was no possibility of the Japanese people voting to remove him. Did that make the Americans violators of the human rights of the Japanese? We now have voting at 18, reduced from 21 in 1970. Do we really think that we violated the human rights of 18-20 year-olds by denying them the vote before then?
As well as issues concerning whether or not one can vote, the notion of voting as a human right would create many difficulties concerning the degree of representation. For example, for many years graduates of certain universities had an additional vote in General Elections for the university seat, as well as whatever other vote they might have. Indeed, even today in Ireland there are two university seats for the upper house. Now we might believe it a good or a bad idea that people get to have two votes, but do we really want to say that granting some people two votes violates the human rights of others? If constituencies do not all have the same number of voters, so that if I live in a larger-than-average constituency my vote might have a smaller proportionate influence in whether my preferred candidate is elected, then my human rights have been violated?
Human rights, to the limited extent the concept is worth pondering at all, surely concern issues of liberty. (If you don’t even pretend that human rights are something to do with liberty, then of course I agree with you, but in that case I have no idea why you find the doctrines of human rights even tempting.) And liberty is not remotely the same thing as democracy. It is familiar ground that there can be very liberal states that are not at all democratic, and very democratic states that are highly illiberal. Surely the way to translate this familiar nostrum into the language of human rights is by saying that states can have a high respect for human rights without being democratic, or be democratic without respecting human rights.
Spelling it out: since human rights are nothing to do with democracy — we can be democratic without respecting human rights, or respect human rights without being democratic — it doesn’t even begin to be plausible that there is any human right to democratic participation, least of all a human right to vote.