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Incarcerated voters and maintaining democracy

By Kristy Koehler, October 11 2019—

Canadian citizens have the right to vote and participate in the democratic process. Should any Canadian citizen ever be disenfranchised, that is to say, have that right revoked? Absolutely not. 

Every election cycle, as voting booths are set up around the city, arrangements are also made for persons in correctional institutions and federal penitentiaries to cast their ballots. Every election cycle, the debate opens up about whether or not incarcerated persons should have the right to vote. In 1993, those serving sentences of less than two years were allowed to vote, and in 2002, all incarcerated persons were given the right to do so. In Canada, this right is not yet in danger of being removed, however, in the United States, many of those incarcerated do not have the right to vote.

There is no doubt in my mind that those serving prison sentences are already paying a price to society for their crimes by the loss of their freedom. They deserve a say in what happens to the world while they are behind bars.

The goal of incarceration is to decrease recidivism and to ensure that, upon release, incarcerated persons are able to integrate back into society with ease. Even the Criminal Code of Canada, section 718, makes note that “the fundamental purpose of sentencing is to protect society and to contribute, along with crime prevention initiatives, to respect for the law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society” and “to assist in rehabilitating offenders.” The Correctional Service of Canada’s website states that their “main goal is to ensure that eligible offenders safely return to the community.”

There is no better way to increase respect for law, order and society than to allow someone to participate in their democratic rights.

I have heard a middling solution proposed — that those who would be released under the government which is being elected should have a vote as they may have to live several years under that government, but those who are serving longer terms should not. I disagree. Democracy is universal. The moment concessions are made, the closer the system as a whole is to collapse. What if the crime is heinous? What if it’s unforgivable? Again, concessions cannot be made. Societal abhorrence for a particular crime cannot interfere with the principle that democracy is universal. To be clear, even if a heinous act was perpetrated against someone I loved, I would still be arguing that they have the right to vote. 

Would you argue that prisoners should lose access to food? Health care? Ability to live free from bodily harm? I view the ability to participate in democracy alongside the rest of the population as a right as well.

Those serving life with no eligibility for parole still may have friends, family, even children outside of the prison system, for whom they wish to leave a better world. Incarceration does not inherently mean no engagement with the outside world — an inmate serving life in prison may have been a passionate climate change activist or women’s rights advocate prior to incarceration. Simply because one law was violated does not mean that the person convicted should not be able to participate in any law — if someone is in prison for theft, they should still be allowed a voice on say, abortion, or immigration. If a prisoner has children, they will likely have strong opinions about education and childcare that they should be allowed to vote on.

And, when you consider that the prison system largely incarcerates people of colour and those who grew up in poverty and with difficult family situations, to remove prisoners from the vote disenfranchises vulnerable populations.

Thankfully, Canada is unlikely to remove this right from incarcerated persons. However, the more we discuss why prisoners should have the vote, the less chance there is that we will ever regress to a time when they did not. 



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