Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? The Right To Vote For Inmates
Supreme Court of Canada Building
May 27, 1993
A lot has changed in the past 93 years. Canada has gone from being a
society that gives only white males over 21 years of age the right to
vote, to one that allows virtually everybody over the age of 18 years
to cast a ballot.
Everyone, that is, except for prisoners. Section 51 of the Canada
Elections Act disqualifies certain people from voting. Prominent
on that list is "every person undergoing punishment as an inmate
in any penal institution for the commission of any offence" [s.51(e)].
Richard Sauvé, a former member of the Satan's Choice Motorcycle
Club, was serving a life sentence for first degree murder. He challenged
the law that prevented him from voting while in prison.
Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed
every citizen the right to vote. Sauvé was a citizen. So did the
Canada Elections Act violate the charter?
Some argued that taking away a prisoner's right to vote was a reasonable
violation of the charter given that they were irresponsible, uninformed,
and simply undeserving.
Both the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada disagreed.
First, they found that the right to vote can't be limited to just a "decent
and responsible citizenry." Governments had used this restriction
to discriminate against citizens on the basis of colour, race, and gender
in the past.
Second, the courts ruled that prisoners could not be banned from voting
under the pretext that they were isolated from society. With access to
cable television and newspapers, prisoners could still stay on top of
developments and make informed decisions.
Third, denying the right to vote is a blanket punishment. As such, s.51(e)
of the Canada Elections Act was not a "proportional response";
therefore, section 1 of the charter would not allow it to discriminate
Indeed, the courts found that two wrongs did not make a right.
Charter s. 3
3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members
of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified
for membership therein.
Canada Elections Act
51. The following persons are not qualified to vote at an election and
shall not vote at an election: (a) the Chief Electoral Officer (b) the
Assistant Chief Electoral Officer (c) the returning officer for each electoral
district during his term of office, except when there is an equality of
votes on a recount, as provided in this act (d) every judge appointed
by the Governor in Council other than a citizenship judge appointed under
the Citizenship Act (e) every person undergoing punishment as an inmate
in any penal institution for the commission of any offence (f) every person
who is restrained of his liberty of movement or deprived of the management
of his property by reason of mental disease and (g) every person who is
disqualified from voting under any law relating to the disqualification
of electors for corrupt or illegal practices.
Did you know?
Following this case, the federal government amended the law to prohibit
from voting only prisoners serving sentences of more than 2 years. Sauvé
challenged the new law. He lost in the Federal Court of Appeal on October
21, 1999. The court saw that the new law was proportional and punished
the offender for his or her crime.
Want To Know More?
Sauvé v. Canada (Attorney General) (Supreme Court of Canada) Sauvé
v. Canada (Attorney General) (Ontario Court of Appeal)