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Prisoner voting in Canada | John L. Hill

Wednesday, September 01, 2021 @ 2:45 PM | By John L. Hill

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John L. Hill %>
John L. Hill
A three-judge panel of the Superior Court in North Carolina ruled on Aug. 23 that convicted felons, who were not currently serving prison time, can now register to vote. This ruling applies to North Carolinians who are presently on probation, parole and post-release supervision. It has been estimated that this will add 56,000 voters to the state list of electors.

A written decision will be forthcoming but already appeals are planned. At least one state senator, Republican Warren Daniel, has criticized the judgment as judicial overreach. Yet the decision is in line with 20 other states that restore voting rights automatically upon release from prison. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow convicted felons to continue their right to vote.

Canada is now in the early stages of a federal election. In 1993, Parliament allowed prisoners serving less than two years to vote. The law excluded federal penitentiary inmates. Federal prisoners’ right to vote in this country was established in the case of Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer) [1996] 1 F.C. 857. That decision found that prohibitions of an inmate’s right to vote was unconstitutional. The court decision cites numerous studies establishing that there is no legitimate purpose in preventing prisoners from voting. Nonetheless, like in North Carolina, the Department of Justice dug in its heels objecting to the reform and shamelessly, but unsuccessfully, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada where prisoner suffrage was upheld in 2002

Once it was established that there was nothing to be gained in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration into the community by denying the vote, means were found to suppress its impact. When women and Indigenous people won the right to vote, the impact of their ballots could be translated into large numbers voting in a particular riding where their voices could be heard. Where a prisoner’s vote is counted is not so straightforward. Prisoners in Canada can submit an Application for Registration and Special Ballot to a correctional officer.

The riding where the vote will be counted is determined by the inmate’s place of residence prior to imprisonment, where a spouse or a relative or dependent lives, the place of arrest or the riding in which conviction occurred. Spreading the impact of prisoner votes lessens the possibility that block voting will impact the result of ridings having large penitentiary populations and causing local candidates to campaign in prisons or draw support for prison reform agendas.

Inmates will be voting on Sept. 8, several days ahead of the rest of us who may wish to vote in advance polls. On prisoner’s election day, they may participate by writing in the name of the candidate they choose to vote for in the riding in which the inmate’s pre-conviction domicile is established.

In the 2021 election, nominations for candidates running for a seat in Parliament had a 2 p.m. Aug. 30 deadline. That gives inmates a little over a week to learn who is running in their local constituency and make a decision on who gets their support. Inmates can bone up on issues by listening to radio or television but without Internet, the ability to learn of local issues where their vote will be delivered is diminished.

When a prisoner comes to vote, he or she is required to declare that the inmate’s name is correctly shown on an envelope and swear that this is the only vote being cast. Instead of marking an X, the inmate writes in the candidate’s name and inserts it in the envelope and seals it. Misspellings are allowed as long as the candidate’s name can be ascertained.

Despite the fear of some legislators in North Carolina, the issue is not that felons be allowed to vote but how effective will that vote be. In Canada, we give the impression of universal suffrage but, in reality, it is (unfortunately) a largely meaningless gesture.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at

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