Why allow convicted criminals to vote?

  • According to a 1998 HRW report,

    The United States may have the world’s most restrictive criminal disenfranchisement laws. We know of no other democracy besides the United States in which convicted offenders who have served their sentences are nonetheless disenfranchised for life. A few countries restrict the vote for a short period after conclusion of the prison term: Finland and New Zealand, for example, restrict the vote for several years after completion of sentence, but only in the case of persons convicted of buying or selling votes or of corrupt practices. Some countries condition disenfranchisement of prisoners on the seriousness of the crime or the length of their sentence. Others, e.g., Germany and France, permit disenfranchisement only when it is imposed by a court order.

    Many countries permit persons in prison to vote. According to research by Penal Reform International, prisoners may vote in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Zimbabwe. In Germany, the law obliges prison authorities to encourage prisoners to assert their voting rights and to facilitate voting procedures. The only prisoners who may not vote are those convicted of electoral crimes or crimes (e.g., treason) that undermine the “democratic order,” and whose court-imposed sentence expressly includes disenfranchisement.

    There's a BBC story with more details as to where and how prisoners can vote: But it doesn't say much about the arguments for.

    There's already a question on Politics.SE exploring the reasons for the US restrictions. What I want to ask here is (the opposite basically): what are the motivations for being as non-restrictive as the countries mentioned by HRW above, e.g. why allow people in prison (never mind after release) to vote? Granted, it will be difficult to make a world-wide survey, but I'd like to hear some arguments that are raised in countries that have least restrictive laws on criminals voting.

    Did you intend for answers based in political or social philosophy? That's what the political-theory tag indicates. If so, you may see our Meta question on asking great Theory questions.

    @indigochild: yes, I would welcome that. I know (well, found out in the meantime) that ECHR has ruled blanket bans on prisoners' voting a violation of article 3, protocol 1; but they also allow partial bans, as long as they deem the bans proportional. I'm not sure what their opinion is on post-conviction bans... might be the same. Article 3 is pretty broadly formulated, so ECHR has exercised considerable latitude in their interpretation.

    Just to be sure, are you asking about the US and using other countries as examples? Or are you asking in general and using the US as one extreme example and other countries as the extremes on the other end of this issue?

    @grovkin: I think the question is clear enough that I'm not asking about the US (because it's the topic of a separate question on P.SE). If you read my own answer here (which I wrote after I did some more reading/research), that's even more obvious...

    You don't need to find a reason to give people the vote, you need to find a reason to take it away. That's a fundamental tenet of your society. Is it not?

    Why allow anyone to vote? No good comes of it anyway... just leads to things like politicians and corruption.

    A convicted criminal isn't necessarily currently incarcerated. 'Why do some countries allow *prisoners* to vote?' - Also, "As of 2012, only Florida, Kentucky and Virginia continue to impose a lifelong denial of the right to vote to all citizens with a felony record"

    Your title asks about people who have been convicted of a crime but the body of your question seems to be about people currently in prison. Those are two different questions -- which are you asking?

    This is, IMHO, not the right question to ask, because it is asking us to essentially prove a negative action in different terms; when talking about rights and whether a group should have them, you should have a good reason for taking rights away, not the reverse. To ask the reverse as you've done here is to imply that the right to vote should not be a right of citizens, and is actively granted to citizens only for 'good behavior' (e.g. not being convicted of a crime). In reality, this is not the case; in modern democracies, citizens have the right to vote, period. It's a right, after all!

    @LightnessRacesinOrbit is spot on. If you have a society that allows everyone to vote (by default), then that's why they're allowed to vote.

    Because we allow them to run for office. *ba-dum tsssshh!*

    How else would democrats get elected?

  • The most trite answer is a civil rights protection against the following algorithm:

    1. Win a legislative election.
    2. Pass any law which disproportionately imprisons the supporters of your opponents.
    3. Profit.

    This is relatively hard to prevent through other constitutional means, since the law doesn't need to be exclusively or primarily politically targeted to have an effect.

    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

    This is by far the best answers. All other answers are just rethorics. This one makes the most sense. Criminals are not always evil. Ahok is a criminal. He is jailed because he run governments efficiently and then is sentenced for vague crimes called blasphemy. Also war on drugs are really war on blacks

    1. Democracy: Criminals (including those in jail) are affected by the results of the political process. Allowing them to vote gives their an option for their opinions to be heard.

      If you want to signal criminals that they are not full members of the society, do it coherently: convicted criminals cannot vote, but they get to pay less taxes, too.

      On the other hand, if a demography feels (with or without reason) that they are being discriminated against and you take away the legal tools they have to fight that discrimination, the likely result is a big discontent and a loss of attachment to the legal system.

    2. Rehabilitation: An important part of the penal system is supposed to be rehabilitation of the offender so s/he can become a law-abiding citizen. But when you release from prison you tell them that they cannot be trusted with something as harmless as a vote.

      And before you say (and please present evidence if you do) that "criminals will vote for criminals", let's remember that the voting record of law-abiding citizens is far from being stellar, and if the criminals vote for an appallingly bad candidate then their votes will be nullified by the mass of good citizens who will vote for "good" candidates.

      And of course, it has been explained here often how preventing people with low IQ from voting is bad, even if they are likely to vote "bad". Criminals should make no difference.

    3. End of the punishment: A life-long restriction will mark former convicts for life. Maybe it has been 50 years since you committed your crime and you have been clear since then, but you still have the mark of your conviction, to remind you of that.

    4. It is useless as a deterrent: If someone is willing to commit a crime that could end with one (or twenty) years of jail... do you think the loss of the right to vote is going to make a difference?

    "As harmless as a vote"? I always thought that there's not much more powerful, politically speaking.

    These sound reasonable, but is there any evidence to show that this is the actual, factual reason why criminals are allowed to vote?

    @WhatRoughBeast Slogans are good for Twitter, but should not be accepted acritically. If you vote and your option loses, your vote is little more than a show of support. If you vote and your option wins, your vote is **just one of the aggregate of votes** that made your option win. Collectivelly voting is important, a single individual vote does not mean that much for the end result (apart from that there are the personal aspects about feeling represented and that you form part of a system in which your opinion is counted, even if it does not win).

    Neither should criticism be accepted uncritically. While your objection has merit, it ignores a few things. First, the aggregate cannot be formed without the individual. Start tossing out individual votes and pretty soon you've got an aggregate effect. And elections can hinge on remarkably small vote differentials, so a single (or a few) vote(s) can be important - and there is no way to tell when the franchise is denied if the denied vote _would_ have been important. Would you be best pleased if your own rights were denied because "it probably won't matter"?

    @WhatRoughBeast in the United States you might be right. With over 2 million people in jail (on a population of +-325 million) it's not a negligible percentage. In most developed countries the incarceration rate is a lot lower and the incarcerated are unlikely to sway and election. That being said, the arguments for allowing them to vote are still there (see other answers) and seeing that they only make up a small group denying them the vote is unnecessary.

    The rehabilitation point is an important one. Most states that disallow voting see prison purely as a punishment, and allow no chance for rehabilitation. They see this step as marking someone to be a bad person, irrevocably

  • Here are some actual arguments given in cases around the world, extracted from a paper focusing on the Irish case:

    • Israel: after Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin, there was a court case asking for Amir's voting rights to be curtailed. The Israeli supreme court refused stating that Amir's imprisonment was his punishment and that in denying the right to vote ‘the base of all fundamental rights is shaken’. So I read this as they took it as an inalienable human right.

    • South Africa (post-Apartheid): There was no actual law prohibiting prisoners from voting, but there was no voting going on in prisons either. There was a 2003 case in which the government argued that ‘making provision for convicted prisoners to vote would in these circumstances send an incorrect message to the public that the government is soft on crime’. The SA Chief Justice rejected this argument however, stating that:

      It could hardly be suggested that the government is entitled to disenfranchise prisoners in order to enhance its image; nor could it reasonably be argued that the government is entitled to deprive convicted prisoners of valuable rights that they retain in order to correct a public misconception as to its true attitude to crime and criminals. (Minister of Home Affairs v. Nicro , CCT 3/4, 2004)

    • Canada (2002); the Canadian Supreme Court rejected in a 5-to-4 vote

      the Government’s argument to deny inmates the right to vote because of some ‘vague and symbolic objectives’ about enhancing civic responsibility and respect for the rule of law. Quite the contrary, in fact; the denial of the right to vote would not promote civic responsibility as the Government had argued, but it was ‘more likely to send messages that undermine the respect for the law and democracy than messages that enhance those values’ . The Supreme Court ruled that it could not ‘permit elected representatives to disenfranchise a segment of the population’ (Sauvé v . Canada , 2002).

    So again, an argument that it is an inalienable right, so that not even a majority vote could remove it from a group.

    • In contrast to the above, in 2004 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) determined that the right to vote (and stand for election) is not absolute. However, they ruled that blanket bans (such as: everyone in prison, a rule that the UK had) were contravening Article 3 of Protocol 1, the right to free elections. Since then, there have been a slew of cases at ECHR; in a contrasting case, ECHR found that Italy's laws which provided for a loss of voting (in time) proportional to the crime's main/prison sentence was ok. But they also ruled against Russia's or Bulgaria's more blanket provisions. The UK has adopted a "face saving" measure in which they allow a very small number of prisoners to vote, as to comply with the letter of ECHR ruling. This was a recent development; it remains to be seen if the ECHR will see it as sufficient. In contrast to the UK, Ireland passed a law in 2006 allowing prisoner postal vote (explicit reference was made to the 2004 ECHR ruling against the UK); there was not a single opposition raised (on principle) in the parliamentary debates for the law. In fact the parliamentary opposition argued for the law more than the government in the debates. Of note is that there was no blanket prohibition in Irish law against prisoners voting since 1963 (when some acts having such prohibition dating from 1870 and 1923 we abolished), but there were no facilities provided either. And to round up this EU discussion, in contrast to Israel, some European countries (Germany and some nordic ones) allow the removal of voting rights for politically motivated (e.g. terrorist) crimes, but not for most other. In a more limited ruling (as in it did not address blanket bans), the ECJ has decided in 2015 that a voting ban for life issued against a French citizen under a law that is no longer the current one in France, still does not violate the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The Court justified this by arguing that while voting is a fundamental right, it can still be restricted, provided the restriction is "proportionate in so far as it takes into account the nature and gravity of the criminal offence committed and the duration of the penalty".

    It's certainly not a coincidence that among the countries supporting least restrictions, e.g. South Africa or Ireland, had a significant history of [having had] political prisoners.

    ZA+IE: More specifically, having had political prisoners *from a group that then came into power*.

    A study (can't find it) found that Canadian prisoners tend to vote for right-wing "law and order" parties.

    With regard to so-called "inalienable" rights, of the three that are enumerated explicitly in the US Declaration of Independence, one is not guaranteed by law and the other two are routinely taken away by legal process. So asserting that the franchise is "inalienable" does not actually imply that it may not be taken away.

  • A few points not brought up by the other answers:

    Criminals are not uniformly of one party. In certain cases reformed criminals, or even unreformed criminals, might be much wiser voters who are less easily beguiled than the innocent. For example:

    • Suppose a white collar criminal employs some blue collar criminals to perpetrate some unlawful deed. The blue collar criminals are caught and convicted, but they get no help from their white collar boss who has a great lawyer and walks.

      Later the white collar criminal runs for office on his spotless criminal record, perhaps on some anti-crime platform. The general public may believe he's honest as he claims. His former employees know better, and would never vote for him. By disenfranchising them, the nation deprives itself of wiser votes.

      Prior to running for office, that same white collar criminal also interacted with all sorts of underworld people who know what he is -- drug dealers, pimps, etc. For them he is a necessary evil, but a very obnoxious customer. They also may have criminal records, but would dearly love to do their part to keep that man out of office.

    • Similarly, the unfortunate blue collar criminals of the previous example have more direct experience with white collar crime than the average voter. When evaluating a different criminal candidate whom they never worked for, but who seems suspiciously similar in manners and history to their former boss, they're more likely than the average voter to recognize that different candidate as another white collar criminal.

    • Many criminals appreciate law, and know that their crimes are only profitable because relatively few people commit them. Some are raising children kept unaware of their parents misdeeds. They don't necessarily want a general lawlessness, and therefore hope to vote for better candidates than themselves.

    • Ex-con voters make a good counterbalance to naive law-and-order extremist Vlad The Impaler types.

    Note: this Q. employs the verb allow which implies a viewpoint more congenial to monarchies rather than democracies. A less monarchical phrasing might be "Why uphold the rights of convicts to vote?", or more adversarially "Why not allow the state to violate convicts' voting rights?"

    These sound reasonable, but is there any evidence to show that this is the actual, factual reason why criminals are allowed to vote?

    @indigochild, Sorry, (at present...), this partial answer fails to connect the above points to the policy of any specific nation's policy. Pending, maybe... Re _"...**the** reason..."_: policies are usually legislated for many reasons; since The *OP* did not request a _single_ reason, this usage of the definite article#Definite_article) seems needlessly restrictive.

    @agc, "I'd like to hear some arguments that are raised in countries that have least restrictive laws on criminals voting." If you could find references to the reasons you describe above being attributed to other countries I think that would make this answer better.

  • Citizens who are convicted of crimes don't stop being citizens and start being criminals arbitrarily, and voting is not a privilege: it is a civic duty. It makes sense that the default should be preserving an individual's civil liberties so that they can carry out their larger duties as a citizen unless (as in the case of France, Germany and others, where a judge can decide to disenfranchise in the case of serious, politically motivated crimes) the disenfranchisement is directly relevant to their transgression.

  • First and foremost: The question is ill-considered because universal suffrage is considered now a basic human right.

    Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21

    (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

    There is the word: "Everyone". A basic human right means by definition that any limitations must be strictly and convincingly justified, not the other way round. This is easy to understand: Take one of the basic rights most highly regarded, e.g. freedom of speech in the USA and ask the question: Why may democrats/republicans/radicals speak their nonsense publicly? Or that human dignity is inviolable in Germany and ask the question: Why don't I have the right to insult everyone I like? In both cases it is clear from the outset that the asker, not the askee, must justify his proposal.

    So if the OP does not want to challenge the Human Rights in general then the question is manipulative. There is no reason necessary to allow criminals to vote. The correct question is: "What good reasons do I have that criminals should lose the right to vote?" which is still a good question.

    grovkin already gave arguments for that and was chided for answering the wrong question when he was right to argument this way.

    So how are limitations for criminals justified for example in Germany?.

    The anti-discrimination law in Article 3 of the Grundgesetz (basic law) does not mention criminal actions as something which justifies requirement of protection.

    More interesting is the §13 of the Bundeswahlgesetz (federal voting law):

    The first passage is the interesting one and mentions the Richterspruch (court decision):

    • The highest court in Germany is able to revoke the voting right for a person permanently, but this never happened and is unlikely to happen.

    • A person who had committed a crime with at least one year prison loses his/her right to be voted into public positions for five years, but not the right to vote.

    • A person who did the following crimes can(!) lose the right to vote for 2-5 years:

      a) (High) Treason.
      b) Voter fraud
      c) Voting manipulation
      d) Voting coercion: Threat of violence, bribes etc.

    So the law pinpoints the exact reasons why the perpetrator is unfit to vote and the committed crimes makes it very hard to argue against that. In all cases (apart from the one which never happened) the loss of rights is also temporarily so the ECHR had no complaint against the German law.

    ADDITION: I see that it seems to be misinterpreted as "Germany's laws are better than those of other countries/ Germany's laws should be a model". This is not the case. It simply says that if restrictions apply, they must have a good reason. If other countries choose to have no restrictions, that is absolutely fine.

    When I said "no restrictions", I, the UN and most other people assume that a voter belongs to the population who wants to vote, is physically capable to vote by deciding and communicating this decision (is not in a coma, in a state of severe psychosis etc.) and has reached the age of being an independent person (a child is dependent on the love of its parents, so it really cannot make an independent decision). "Everyone" is not a mathematical definition, but a shortcut for "has per default the right to vote".

    Universal suffrage isn't universal. You can argue that the current exclusions (which vary by country) are warranted, while the old ones weren't, but it still just reflects some ideas of who should be allowed to vote and who shouldn't.

    Exactly. The premise of the question is the wrong way round. It should read, "_Why remove voting rights from people who are in prison?_".

    You don't have to go so far as to argue with the Universal Decalration of Hunman Rights. The right to vote simply is the most important political right in a democracy. Take it away from people and the democracy quickly becomes dysfunctional. Therefore you need a **very good** reason to take away the right to vote. And the argument with Art 3 GG is simply wrong. It doesn't need to mention crime. It says *don't treat the same different or something different the same*. There is no room and no need to get into specifics there.

    Your interpretation that it is obvious that this applies to all people is problematic. Are five year olds people? Yes. May they vote? No - so when it says "everyone" it's obvious that they didn't intend to include minors. Do you see the problem? Just as it may be obvious to you that five year olds weren't meant by "everyone", it may be similarly obvious to someone else that felons aren't meant to be included.

    I downvoted this because your "very hard to argue" part was not at all hard to argue against in some countries, e.g. South Africa, Israel etc. Your assumption here is that Germany must have gotten this right, as opposed to everyone else somewhere else on the spectrum of banning voting. It's not at all clear why somebody's "right" reasons to ban voting are "hard to argue" against since you begin by saying the right is universal... and since the reasons such "high treason" aren't based in any universally accepted declaration of principles (for rights reduction). [continued]

    Why not allow people who have committed high treason to be tortured for instance? I don't mean for you to answer this question here, but rather I want to point out that there are substantial gaps in your argument that the reasons given in German law are "very hard to argue" against.

    @Fizz I think you have really misinterpreted it as "Other countries should go the way of Germany" which is not intended. Read the additional part below the original answer.

  • You are begging the question: assuming that they shouldn't be allowed to vote is self evident and thus that there must be some argument that overrides that or it would never be allowed.

    "what are the motivations" ... "why allow", these are really only relevant in a context where an alternative was proposed or was the standard, but you haven't established that it was either an existing standard or proposed. If nobody ever suggested taking their right to vote away, then there was never any motivation or reason to allow them to vote -- that is just how things are.

    And if it is how things are, then the question becomes: why should they be prevented from voting? What argument is there for disenfranching them? They have broken the law, and are being punished for it, but does it make sense for that punishment to include silencing them?

    And once you start down the path of removing their votes, where will you stop and why?

    It's quite likely that a number of places never had an initial "decision" to remove the votes of prisoners, instead a side effect of their being imprisoned was that they were physically unable to vote. They could not set up poll booths of their own, and they could not go to the poll booths setup by others.

    Enabling them to vote would have to be a deliberate decision, because it requires setting up the physical infrastructure, IF there isn't a simple way Already setup for absentee-voters. If they can vote by mail for instance, there may not have been a decision to allow it, they were simply able to use an pre-existing method.

    But all of this is dependent upon each individual localities history, which hasn't been established and which it is unreasonable for anyone to simply know off hand.

    Clearly not everyone thinks this is a stupid question with a self-evident answer.

    @Fizz: I did not say that the question was stupid or that the answer was self evident, I said the question is assuming facts not in evidence: namely that people set down and decided o revoke felons rights and then reconsidered.

    I'm guessing you're referring to the question title, rather than the detailed version I've asked; the latter was "what are the motivations for being as liberal as the [non-US] countries mentioned by HRW above, e.g. why allow people in prison (never mind after release) to vote?" Yeah, my question title may sound a bit more like like clickbait (I didn't want to make it too long), but you're welcome to edit it.

    @Fizz: no, it's the body of your question. It assumes that those countries either had laws taking the vote, or that they tried to implement such laws and failed. It also characterizes this hypothetical decision as "liberal", when it is entirely possible for it to have been a conservative decision.

    I never said they "tried to implement such laws and failed". "Liberal" was as in "non-restrictive". I'll change that one word.

  • Two issues:

    1. It really depends on if your goal with incarceration is that of punishment, rehabilitation, or both. If one of the latter categories, that means that these people are going to re-enter society at some point, and thus should have a say on how that society functions.

    2. How does one reform one's treatment of prisoners/law breakers if those who have/are experiencing said treatment are disallowed from voting? As long as imprisonment is a state-mandated exercise, it remains a purview of voting, and thus its victims should be able to vote.

    These sound reasonable, but is there any evidence to show that this is the actual, factual reason why criminals are allowed to vote?

    Thanks. Answers are expected to be backed-up. That means they should be based in facts or personal experience. You should edit your question to include references or links to external sources which show this to be correct.

  • As a thought experiment, imagine that the court would have to list all the punishments that a criminal is going to receive during the sentencing, or even decide on each one separately.

    • The "main part" of the sentence, be it a prison term or fine.
    • Other fines or fees.
    • Supervision after release.
    • Formal (legal) limits on his employability after release.
    • Loss of custody of children.
    • ...
    • Loss of voting rights.

    For many sentences, tacking on a lifelong loss of voting rights would look disproportionate on that list. (And so might some of the others, including employability.) Why should a petty criminal be allowed to leave the prison after just a few months, but not be allowed to vote again even after the parole ends (if there was any)? Either he has "paid his debt to society" after that time or he hasn't, they should make up their mind.

    Consider that voting is a fundamental civil right. Not quite as important as freedom from incarceration, but taking it away should be a well-considered decision, with the length of the punishment fitting the severity of the crime. A lifelong loss of voting rights tacked onto any sentence as a routine matter demeans the importance of voting (by non-criminals) and the democratic process.

    People who are released on parole are not considered to have paid their debt to society. In fact, they are not considered to have rehabilitated, either. Which is why they are usually required regular check up with parole officers.

    These sound reasonable, but is there any evidence to show that this is the actual, factual reason why criminals are allowed to vote?

    @indigochild, added a link to an ECHR case. Evidence enough?

    @grovkin, I explicitly mentioned supervision as part of the punishment/rehabilitation process. I can clarify that..

    I am pretty sure the loss of voting rights is something that only happens to convicted felons. Felony is a serious crime. Petty crimes are misdemeanors. Because sentences for felonies are usually very long, the distinction between a life-long voting ban and a ban on voting while on parole is not a distinction that would make much practical difference.

    @grovkin, the original poster explicitly wanted to ask beyond the US case, so I don't see how the US distinction between misdemeanors and felonies is relevant. Of course similar classifications exist elsewhere in the world, including the countries which do not restrict voting rights in either case.

    I am actually not sure if they were asking about US and using other countries as counterexamples or if they were asking in general. I added a comment asking for clarification.

    It appears that the question was about general cases. The only examples other than US, that are mentioned on this page are Russia and Bulgaria. I don't know anything about Russian or Bulgarian legal system, but there is no indication here that the voting bans go into effect even for people arrested for petty crimes.

    That link works for me. Upvoted.

    This is pretty much the position of German law: for some crimes (such as e.g. disruption of election process, falsification of election results, blackmailing or bribing voters) the criminal code explicitly states that the sentence can include temporary loss of the right to vote (and be elected): "In addition to a sentence of imprisonment of at least six months for an offence pursuant to section 107, section 107a, section 108 or section 108b the court may order the loss of the ability to hold public office, to vote and be elected in public elections (section 45(2) and (5))."

    IIRC a lifelong loss of voting rights (and other fundamental rights) is theoretically possible, but only by decision of the constitutional court (highest court we have), so it is far outside the "normal" legal proceedings.

    @indigochild. You copy-pasted the same comment four times (so far...). You always start with the default assumption that conviction for a crime automatically leads to loss of voting rights, as if that was obvious. The reality is that this is a peculiarly American thing: most democracies see voting and criminality as orthogonal - why would you stop someone voting? Would you stop him from praying?

    In general, if someone is convicted of a crime, and then after serving their time they commit the same crime again, the punishment the second time around should be harsher. Imposing a punishment for the first offense which could never be imposed for any subsequent offense would be counter to that principle.

  • I think, in its simplest form, the answer is this:

    If the convicted person has already served the entirely of their sentence, then their debt to society is paid, and they have already served their punishment.

    Not allowing them to participate as citizens would be additional punishment. Allowing them to vote is in line with the idea that "you do the crime, you serve your time," and that's the end of it.

    The USA seems somewhat harsher than most other societies in the desire for any criminal to be branded for life in one fashion or another, whether it be the call for longer and more harsh incarcerations for just about any infraction, or additional punishment beyond what the convicted was sentenced to.

    As I look at my response, it's really not responsive to the question, which is specific to felons voting WHILE incarcerated. As such, while I appreciate the occasional up-vote, this answer doesn't deserve any.

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