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Right to vote.

The year 2004 has been the year of elections. A federal election was held in June. In Alberta, there are rumblings a provincial election will be held in the fall. There will also be municipal elections. These events recall a very important right--the right to vote.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, "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." Further, the Canada Elections Act states, "Every person who is a Canadian citizen and is 18 years of age or older on polling day is qualified as an elector."

In the last two federal elections, voter turnout in Canada has been at a record low. The turnout in 2004 was only 60.5% (Elections Canada, online: Many Canadians are not exercising a precious right.

This is unfortunate, as history indicates that this cornerstone of democracy--the vote or "franchise"--has not always widely been available. Some form of voting has been around for a long time. For example, in 508 BC, Cleisthenes introduced an ostracism system of voting. Each year, voters were asked to vote for the politician they most wished in exile for 10 years. If a politician received more than 6,000 votes, he was exiled (J.J. O'Connor and E.F. Robertson, "The History of Voting", (online: Although voting has a long history, in general, only a very small portion of the population was actually able to vote until fairly recently. For example, in England, by the end of the 18th century, only two percent of the population could vote (Electoral Services, History of the Right to Vote (online:

Canada's voting history clearly indicates that the current right to vote was hard won for many groups. Secret ballots and voting booths were introduced in 1874. Women could not vote in federal elections until 1918, and could not be candidates until 1919. Inuit people did not obtain the right to vote or run as candidates in federal elections until 1950. Until 1960, First Nations people living on reserves could not vote or run in federal elections without giving up their status under the Indian Act. Further, in 1993, federally appointed judges, persons with mental disabilities, and persons serving prison terms of less than two years were granted the right to vote (Elections Canada, online:

Finally, in 2002, a majority of Supreme Court of Canada (5 to 4) ruled in the Sauve case that all federal inmates had the right to vote. All of the parties in the lawsuit agreed that the right to vote under the Charter was infringed when prisoners were disenfranchised, but they disagreed about whether the infringement was nevertheless justified under Charter section 1. The federal government argued that the Court should defer to social and political philosophy on the right to vote. In rejecting this argument, the majority held that the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and the Rule of Law, and cannot easily be set aside. The argument that political theory explains the government's ability to disenfranchise a segment of population flew in the face of democracy. The majority also held that denying the right to vote on the basis of attributed moral unworthiness did not respect human dignity. Also, a disproportionate number of Aboriginal prisoners would suffer the impact of disenfranchisement. In the end, the court ruled that disenfranchisement of these prisoners was unconstitutional.

Thus, the right to vote is considered to be part of respecting basic human dignity. Yet, voter turnout is declining, especially among our youth. In a survey conducted in 2002 of Canadians who did not vote, the researchers found that non-voters have negative attitudes towards politicians and the political system. They lack interest, feel they have no influence over government actions, or feel the election is not competitive enough to make their votes matter (J. Pammett and L. LeDuc, Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections, Ottawa: Elections Canada, 2003, Executive Summary). The researchers go on to suggest several solutions for the problem including enhanced political education and using the Internet for voting.

Others have suggested implementing a system of proportional representation, or making voting mandatory, as it is in some countries. Mandatory voting laws seem to be antithetical to freedom and democracy. Proportional representation may be worth examining. There are several different kinds of proportional representation methods in use around the world. They do have some common elements. The basic underlying principle is all voters deserve representation and all political groups in society should be represented in our legislatures in proportion to the strength of their support in the electorate. For example, if 10% of the vote were won by a particular party, that party would then receive 10% of sears in Parliament. This would address the concern that individual votes do not matter. (D. Amy, "How Proportional Representation Elections Work", 2001, online:

Whatever happens, it is hoped that this decline in voter turnout changes because the right to vote is a precious right that was hard won. It is a cornerstone of democracy, and it represents an important aspect of the fundamental respect for human dignity, which is the basis of all human rights.

Linda McKay-Panos, BEd, LLB, LLM is the Executive Director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre in Calgary, Alberta. Thanks to Shaun Ramdin for his assistance.
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Title Annotation:Human Rights law
Author:McKay-Panos, Linda
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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