Foreign nationals and some prisoners now allowed to vote

MSPs voted for the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill.

Holyrood has passed historic new legislation that will give foreign nationals and some prisoners the right to vote in Scottish elections.

But MSPs voted down proposals from the Scottish Greens that would have seem asylum seekers permitted to take part in ballots.

Constitution secretary Mike Russell said while he had the “greatest sympathy” for the move, there were “practical concerns” about extending the franchise to asylum seekers.

The passing of the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill means that foreign nationals, including refugees, will be allowed to vote in both Holyrood and local council elections.

In addition prisoners serving a sentence of 12 months or less will also be permitted to take part.

Mr Russell hailed the “historic legislation”, which was approved by 92 votes to 27.

To become law it had needed a “super majority” of at least 86 MSPs to vote for it – the first time this has happened at Holyrood.

The extra numbers was required because the legislation changes the electoral franchise.

Mr Russell said voting needed to be extended to some prisoners in order for Scotland to comply with the European Court of Human Rights.

And while he accepted it was an “emotive issue” he said the changes were “driven by a compelling need to meet human rights obligations”.

In contrast he said extending the vote to foreign nationals as driven by the “reality and the aspiration of modern Scottish society”.

Mr Russell told MSPs: “EU and Commonwealth citizens already have the franchise. We must also recognise the enormous contribution brought to our country from people from all over the world, that is why we are extending the right to vote in devolved elections to all foreign nationals resident in Scotland who have leave to remain.”

He described this as being a “major step forward”.

Green MSP Mark Ruskell had tried to amend the legislation so that asylum seekers whose case was still being considered could be given the vote – pointing out they could be “in limbo” for several years waiting for a decision.

He said: “The right to vote is seen by asylum seekers as a fundamental human right, for many it is seen as being even as important as the right to work.

“It is an acknowledgement of their very existence, it is an acknowledgement that they have a voice, and that they are valued.

“And they see the right to vote as a powerful invitation to integrate with the community as well. It is a recognition they are not alien, they are not others, they are part of our communities.”

However MSPs voted by 32 to 87 against the Green amendments after Mr Russell said electoral registration officers had  “practical concerns” about how to accurately maintain records of eligible asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, Conservative MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said: “There can be little hiding from the fact that this Bill will bring prisoners into our elections, and it will be a consequence of a decision made here in Holyrood, not one of compliance with a court in Strasbourg.”

He added: “Many simply disagree that prisoners, people who have stepped beyond the rules set by our society, should have the right to vote for those who set those rules while they are still being punished and still have yet to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into our community.”

And while he said only about 900 prisoners across Scotland would become eligible to vote, he said the SNP had “u-turned on its previous position” and “jettisoned its own principles”.

Conservatives voted against the Bill, but SNP MSPs, together with Labour, the Greens and the Scottish Liberal Democrats supported it.

After the Bill was passed Lorna Gledhill, policy officer with the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “This is a really significant moment.

“The right to vote is a crucial human right that everyone in Scotland should be able to enjoy.

“The decisions made by the Scottish Parliament and local councils affect everyone living in Scotland. We believe everyone living here should have a say in how the country is run.”

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