January 06, 2006
RIGHT TO VOTE UNDER FIRE
PRISONERS' RIGHT TO VOTE UNDER FIRE
Vancouver's " Westender" has published a timely article on the continuing difficulties prisoners have in having their votes count in the upcoming federal election.
By Sean Condon
Jan 05 2006
Although, as in 2004, prisoners across the country will be able to vote in the upcoming federal election, the controversial decision to allow convicted felons to cast a ballot is far from settled. The Conservative party still wants to strip prisoners of their ability to vote, while prisoners’ rights groups want prisoners to be able to vote in the riding in which they are serving their sentence.
Prisoners can currently vote in one of four ridings of their choice: their residence before their incarceration; the residence of their spouse or a relative; the area in which they were arrested; or where they were convicted and sentenced, but not in the riding of their prison. Prisoner activists say this restriction undermines the prisoner’s democratic right.
“[The law is] flawed,” says Eddie Rouse, secretary for the West Coast Prison Justice Society and a former “lifer” now on parole. “Many of the people who are in the prisons don’t have any connection to the area that they were charged in. Also, because they’re living in a certain area for ‘x’ number of months, they satisfy the residence requirements for voting in that area.”
The restriction was placed in order to prevent prisoners from voting as a bloc and influencing the outcome of an election. But while prisons tend to be concentrated in certain cities, such as Abbotsford, the total number of prisoners still makes up a small percentage of the total population of these cities. Rouse says the restriction shows the level of mistrust the public still has in prisoners.
Prisoners were first allowed to vote in 1993 when Parliament gave all prisoners serving less than two years the ability to vote, but maintained restrictions for prisoners serving more than two years. However, Rick Sauvé, a former member of the Satan’s Choice motorcycle gang who is serving a life sentence for first degree murder, kept up his legal challenge; in 2002, as a direct result of Sauve’s efforts, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly ruled that all prisoners would be allowed to vote.
But despite having their constitutional right to vote entrenched, only 25 per cent of eligible prisoners cast a ballot in the 2004 federal election. Prisoner activists hope the numbers will increase in this year’s election, in which an estimated 35,500 federal and provincial prisoners will be able to vote. But with the restrictions still in place, Rouse says it will be difficult to inspire prisoners to participate. Prisoners sentenced to over two years are generally sent to federal penitentiaries and are more likely to be further removed from their original homes. Rouse says that, like most people, prisoners eventually become disconnected from their home and become better informed on the area in which they are living.
“[Prisoners] are well aware of the issues in their local area are and well aware of national issues, because they have access to the media,” says Rouse. “So they’re probably better informed than many of the public who don’t watch much of the news.”
There is currently no legal movement underway to challenge the restriction. After the last federal election, Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley only recommended that parliament introduce legislation to formally change the Election Act, which still recognizes the federal prisoner restrictions. Kingsley has had to use a special emergency provision in every election since 2002 in order to extend voting rights for provincial prisoners to federal prisoners.
Michael Jackson, a professor at the University of British Columbia who has been advocating for prisoners’ rights for over 30 years, says allowing prisoners to vote in the riding in which they are being held would not only be beneficial for the prisoner, but would also help the general public get a better understanding of the issues going on in the prisons. “It would give rise to a vigorous debate on the use of drug laws, the state’s rehabilitation efforts, and whether or not there are sufficient resources being devoted to prevent infectious disease,” says Jackson. “There’s a whole range of issues which prisoners have a particular interest in, which also affect public safety and health.”
But prisoners’ voting rights remains extremely controversial. Victims’ rights groups were adamantly opposed to the Supreme Court ruling, and the Conservative party ran on a platform during the 2004 election to strip prisoners of their ability to vote. Although the party has dropped this from its current platform, party members still support a constitutional amendment to take away their voting rights.
“[Prisoners have] breached their obligations to society,” says Vic Towes, justice critic for the Conservative party. “The consequence of breaching those obligations to society is losing some of your civil rights, and one of those is your right to vote.”
However, taking away prisoners’ voting rights would be extremely difficult. The Conservative party could not use the notwithstanding clause; any constitutional amendment would require the consent of the federal government and seven provinces.
Prisoners are required to vote 10 days before the general election day; therefore, they will cast their ballots in this election on Jan. 13