The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that all federal inmates, including murderers, rapists and thieves, should be allowed to vote in federal elections.
The high court, in a 5-to-4 ruling released Thursday, overturned a 1993 law that forbade prisoners serving more than a two-year sentence from voting. The court called the right to vote fundamental to democracy and rejected the government's argument that only people who respect the law should be able to participate in the political process.
"Disenfranchising inmates is both anti-democratic and internally self-contradictory," the court said. "Denying a citizen the right to vote denies the basis of democratic legitimacy."
The ruling drew wide praise and criticism. Richard Suave, a convicted murderer who filed the lawsuit that reached the high court, said he was thrilled by the decision. Suave, who was convicted of murdering a gang member and is on parole, told CBC Radio that he fought for the case because he believed that prisoners should not lose their right to vote even as they lose their freedom.
"I was never stripped of my citizenship," Suave said. "I wasn't stripped of my thoughts of how Canada should be run. Voting is my opportunity to say I agree or disagree with how the country is run."
Randy White, a member of Parliament from the opposition Canadian Alliance, called the ruling "irresponsible and disgusting." He said his office in British Columbia has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from people upset by the decision.
In the United States, the District of Columbia and every state except Maine and Vermont bar convicted felons from voting while serving their sentences. Only eight states, however, extend the prohibition to include all ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.
Under Canada's system of parliamentary supremacy, Parliament has the final say on whether prisoners should vote, but many political observers say the government is unlikely to ignore the court's decision and write legislation that would ban prisoners from voting.
White said he represents a district that has seven major prisons but he would refuse to campaign in them. "There isn't a hope in hell I would go to an all-candidates meeting in a prison," White said. "I think it is insulting enough the Supreme Court and the government think we should give them the right to vote. How is it possible tens of thousands of people living here do not have the right to vote because they are not citizens yet, but somebody who murdered many people or raped our women or molested our children gets a right to vote? It is an insult to the process of elections."