Prison vote debate unlocks deeper issues

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 February, 2009, 12:00am

After the High Court ruled in December against the current blanket ban on prisoners' right to vote, a change in the decades-old policy is inevitable. The question is: how will it be done?

On Monday, the government outlined various proposals for public consultation. Option one is to remove the existing ban, although restrictions for those convicted of election-related offences or bribery would remain.

Option two is to disqualify prisoners from voting if they are serving 10 years or more. Option three would also disqualify prisoners serving 10 years or more, but only until they reach the last few years of imprisonment.

The consultation document also contains options on the practical voting arrangements and vote-canvassing activities for inmates.

In view of the very real difficulties, including potential security arrangements for prisoners voting at polling stations outside prisons and detention centres, it seems clear that special arrangements will have to be made inside prisons. However, that is more an operational question than a political one.

The potential bone of contention is whether a line should be drawn to restrict the right of inmates to vote. Seen from that light, option one represents the most liberal approach, by limiting the ban.

Underlying option two is the idea that certain restrictions are justifiable when it comes to people serving 10 years or more, presumably because of the severity of their crimes. Option three provides a measure of flexibility to those disqualified from casting their vote.

Constitutional affairs minister Stephen Lam Sui-lung has maintained that the government has an open mind about the options. Like the long-standing policy adopted under colonial rule, the relevant arrangements elsewhere in the world stem from historical and cultural factors.

These have been the subject of fresh debate amid the growing sense of respect for human rights and the importance of re- integrating ex-convicts into society.

Not surprisingly, different societies have different arrangements. Even western democracies have widely varying approaches that all seek to achieve a balance between respecting the right to vote and imposing justifiable restrictions under certain circumstances.

How other societies have set their benchmarks may provide useful references during the consultation period but, ultimately, the Hong Kong community will have to find its own answer.

In light of the moralistic aspect of the issue and the deep-rooted discrimination against prisoners, it is not surprising that the government has raised the issue for public debate. The consultation period ends on March 23.

So far, there are no indications of what the community prefers and even whether the consultation will draw an enthusiastic response.

Although the High Court has ruled that the government was wrong not to review the policy, the issue has arguably not caused a big public fuss.

This feeling of indifference perhaps reflects the prevalent sentiments of certain people that restricting prisoners' right to vote is reasonable, though perhaps not strongly justifiable.

Meanwhile, people who are sympathetic and would prefer a more liberal approach may not want to speak up for the rights of prisoners.

Much has been said about respecting everyone's right to vote, rehabilitating ex-convicts and fostering inclusiveness.

Those values should prevail as society seeks to find a consensus on the voting rights of prisoners through a debate which is free from prejudice.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.