INTRODUCTION

Inmate voting rights is a highly contentious issue. The issue sparked heated debate in both the Alberta and federal elections in 1997. Opponents of inmate voting argue that inmates should be denied the right to vote as a matter of principle. Further, opponents argue that inmates are incapable of making an informed vote and may skew election results in favour of political parties with lenient justice platforms. Cost and administrative inconvenience are further arguments against inmate voting. However, the democratic right to vote is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Allowing inmates to exercise their right to vote promotes responsible citizenship and fosters the development of law-abiding, responsible citizens.

CANADIAN DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS

According to Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, "every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein" (Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, 1982, p. 8). As with all rights and freedoms in Canada, however, the democratic right to vote is not absolute and is "subject to such limitations as are shown to be justified in a free and democratic society" (Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, 1982, p. 5). Therefore, minors and some elections officials are barred from voting in elections.

Incarcerated individuals serving sentences of two years or less (provincial inmates) have the right to vote in federal elections under the Canada Elections Act. Federal inmates(those serving over two years) were granted the right to vote in federal elections by the Federal Court of Canada in January, 1996. The right to vote in provincial elections varies by province. Three Canadian provinces ( New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Yukon Territory)have elected to completely ban inmate voting. Furthermore, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories have limited voting bans that prohibit only inmates serving sentence of two years or more from voting.

Inmate voting rights remains a contentious issue. Provisions relating to inmate voting rights in the Alberta and Canada Elections Acts have been subject to recent court challenges. The section of the Alberta Elections Act which bars inmates from voting in Alberta provincial elections has been challenged in court. On February 28, 1997, an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench justice ruled that a section of the Alberta Elections Act that prohibited prisoners from voting in provincial elections was unconstitutional (Ruling..., 1997). However, on March 1, 1997, the Alberta Court of Appeal issued a stay against the Court of Queen's Bench ruling until an appeal can be heard (Inmates lose right to vote..., 1997). The appeal was heard in April, 1998. The Alberta Court of Appeal also ruled that the law was unconstitutional (Prisoners regain vote..., 1998). However, Justice Cote provided Alberta legislators with guidance as to potential changes to Alberta=s law that might be seen by the Court to be a reasonable limitation of this right. In response to this recent decision, and Justice Cote=s suggestions, the Alberta government has passed amendments to the Elections Act which only allow inmates sentenced to 10 days or less, in jail for not paying fines and inmates convicted but awaiting sentencing to vote in Alberta elections. All other inmates in provincial or federal jails will not be allowed to cast ballots. According to Justice Minister Jon Havelock, it is not known at this time when the new legislation will be proclaimed into law. At the federal level, the government has launched an appeal of a 1996 Federal Court ruling which declared a section of the Canada Elections Act denying federal inmates the right to vote unconstitutional (Feds take another stab at ending inmates= right to vote, 1997).


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