CANADA

A lock on the ballot

Prisoners fight for the right to vote

D’ARCY JENISH September 3 1990
CANADA

A lock on the ballot

Prisoners fight for the right to vote

D’ARCY JENISH September 3 1990

A lock on the ballot

CANADA

Prisoners fight for the right to vote

Robert Rowbotham says that there should be no doubt about where he lives: in a 65-square-foot cell at the medium-security Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. That is where the 39-year-old Rowbotham is serving a 17-year sentence for conspiring to import and sell marijuana and hashish. But according to the Ontario government, which has accepted a 1988 court ruling granting convicted prisoners the right to vote, if Rowbotham or other prisoners want to exercise their franchise in the Sept. 6 election, they will have to do it by proxy in their home ridings—in his case, Toronto’s St. Andrew/St. Patrick. As a result of that ruling, Rowbotham says, thousands of otherwise eligible imprisoned voters in Ontario, unable to make proxy arrangements, will effectively be prevented from casting ballots.

That restriction could be important in an election in which many analysts are predicting a low voter turnout. “Everybody seems to be complacent in the Ontario election,” declared Rowbotham, who sits on the Collins Bay inmate committee. “Here we are,

10,000 people who want to vote, and they’re making it difficult for us.” At the same time, one Manitoba inmate last week won a crucial court victory in his attempt to overturn a ruling that would deny inmates the vote in the Sept. 11 election in that province. Prisoners in both places say that they want the kind of unimpeded access to the ballot box that is already available to prisoners in two other provinces.

Inmates have had the right to vote at polling stations set up inside prisons in Quebec since 1980 and in Newfoundland since 1988.

But the inmates have attracted little support from mainstream politicians in Ontario or Manitoba. In Ontario last week, attention focused

instead on an unexpected promise -

from Liberal Premier David Peterson to lower the province’s sales tax to seven per cent from eight per cent on Jan. 1—the same day that the federal government implements its planned seven-per-cent Goods and Services Tax. Peterson has faced pointed attacks from the New Democrats and Conservatives for his government’s record of tax increases. In Manitoba, meanwhile, campaigners focused on the threat of a weekend strike by the province’s 2,000 doctors. The Liberals and NDP blamed Conservative Premier Gary Filmon’s “confrontation-

al” tactics in the dispute, while Filmon criticized doctors for putting up posters that revealed his private home phone number. Declared Filmon: “That is the kind of terrorism and pressure tactic that no professional organization should be proud of.”

The dispute over inmates’ voting rights in

Ontario results from an Ontario Supreme Court ruling in July, 1988, that declared a section of the province’s Election Act unconstitutional. The court accepted the argument of Sudbury, Ont., lawyer Philip Zylberberg that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees every citizen of Canada the right to vote in federal and provincial elections—regardless of whether they are under sentence for having committed a crime. Zylberberg also says that voting could help rehabilitate some inmates, adding, “If you can get them interest-

ed in what’s going on in the real world, instead of how to scam people, it could be good for them and society as a whole.”

But Ontario Chief Election Officer Warren Bailie refused to enumerate inmates or to set up polling stations in prisons, even though polling stations are routinely set up in such other institutions as nursing homes and hospitals. Said Bailie: “I didn’t feel polling officials would be secure.” Instead, officials have ruled that inmates may exercise their new franchise only by finding a friend or family member willing to cast a proxy vote on their behalf in the constituency where they lived before being sentenced. But Rowbotham, for one, complains that that requirement will effectively prevent many inmates—especially those serving long sentences—from voting.

In Manitoba, meanwhile, inmate Richard Paul late last week won his campaign to restore the right to vote that prisoners enjoyed in the 1988 provincial election. Then, as a result of a successful challenge to the province’s Election Act by three inmates at; Stony Mountain Institution, 20 km north of Winnipeg, 42 per cent of the 1,495 eligible imprisoned voters cast ballots. But after the Manitoba Court of Appeal overruled a second legal challenge by the same three men— that time, of the Canada Election Act—the province’s chief electoral officer declared that prisoners would not be allowed to vote in future provincial elections.

Last week, however, a lawyer representing Paul, who is serving six years for bank robbery, urged Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Judge Peter Morse to reconfirm the first ruling and allow inmates to cast ballots in next month’s election. Even though Morse expressed some uncertainty about his jurisdiction over the issue, he later ruled in favor of the inmate. “As far as we can make out, prisoners will be allowed to vote,” said Ame Peltz, a lawyer for the John Howard Society, which filed the suit on Paul’s behalf. However, lawyers representing the Manitoba department of justice remained undecided at week’s end whether to accept the decision— and permit inmates to cast ballots in their institutions—or to appeal the ruling.

Inmate spokesmen concede that even full access to the ballot box by prisoners is unlikely to have a big impact on the outcome of elections. Still, in some ridings—notably in the Kingston area, where nine federal prisons house about 2,500 inmates—convicts represent a significant number of potential voters, if they could cast ballots in the area. Whether they will be able to wield that electoral power, however, seems to be as much an issue for bureaucrats as it is for the courts.

D’ARCY JENISH