Now we must decide which inmates can vote

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am

There is no disputing that the government has been wrong to deny all prisoners the right to vote. Public opinion has been gauged and resoundingly backed this view. Authorities now want lawmakers to adopt the general findings of the just-ended consultation and lift the blanket ban. But this is not a desirable course: criminals who have committed serious offences should still be disqualified.

The High Court left this matter open when it ruled that the previous ban on inmates registering to vote and taking part in elections was a violation of human rights. Immediately, the question reverted to one of restriction. During a six-week consultation, two distinct camps emerged; the one advocating that no crime should prevent the casting of a ballot won the most support.

This should not mean that the debate has ended. The government has made a recommendation and the Legislative Council panel on constitutional affairs now takes it up. When considering the way forward, its members need to keep firmly in mind that the lifting of the ban was not overwhelmingly backed by the submissions, survey and public forums. They need to put the community they serve foremost when making their decision.

People who commit serious crimes have breached the social contract. Why should we allow, for example, murderers, rapists and those who have violated electoral provisions to cast their votes from prison? Apart from being given harsh sentences, they should also be deprived of their right to have a say in who governs.

Voting restrictions based on the length of a sentence would be a more acceptable course of action. Short-term prisoners could retain the right to vote, but those sentenced to long jail terms should be stripped of the right. This would enhance respect for the law.

A graduated approach based on length of sentence is not an unusual way of determining voting rights for prisoners. It has been adopted by some jurisdictions and is not a violation of human rights or international law. The main task of lawmakers should now be to determine what length of sentence constitutes the loss of that right.




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