FOURTEEN thousand prisoners stand to be disenfranchised in the December elections if the Electoral Commission (EC) does not activate their right to vote.
Separate interviews conducted with the Minister of State at the Ministry of the Interior, Nana Obiri Boahen, and the Executive Director of the Justice and Human Rights Institute, Prof Kenneth Attafuah, indicate that the onus is on the EC to activate the provision in the Constitution for prisoners to vote.
At a colloquium organised by the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) on Monday, the Chairman of the EC, Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, had asked for assurances of safety for the staff of the EC and clear expressions by the courts on the constitutional provisions if polling booths were set up in prisons.
Article 42 of the Constitution provides that “every citizen of Ghana of 18 years of age or above and of sound mind has the right to vote and is entitled to be registered as a voter for the purposes of public elections and referenda”.
The Constitution, by this provision and several others, does not limit the right to vote to only people outside the prisons. However, prisoners in Ghana have never exercised this right.
Extending the constitutional right to vote to citizens who have fallen foul of the law has recently become an issue of debate.
Nana Boahen noted that no law in the country barred prisoners from voting.
“Even if there were any such law, that would be against the fundamental rights of people,” he added.
He was of the view that the EC had not taken up the responsibility to ensure the enjoyment of that right by prisoners by putting in place the right administrative systems and measures.
“If the EC cannot create a polling station for them, they can have them vote by proxy,” he said.
Dr Afari-Gyan said although it was not the commission’s intention to disenfranchise anyone, it did not, by convention, set up polling stations in certain places like the prisons.
His main concerns were the safety of the staff of the EC and clarity on the legal provisions for prisoners to vote.
On those issues, Nana Boahen said if the EC had any concerns over the safety of its staff extending the right to vote to prisons, then the EC should write to the ministry and it would be considered.
He said the mere fact that someone had been tried before a court and convicted did not prevent him or her from voting.
In the same vein, Nana Boahen said it was also wrong for the EC not to implement the Representation of the People’s (Amendment) Law (ROPAL) when it had been assented to by the President and was now in operation.
“The EC says it has logistical constraints in implementing the law, but the unavailability of logistics does not mean the postponement of one’s legal right,” he pointed out.
Prof Attafuah was of the opinion that the EC needed to take practical steps to facilitate the enjoyment of the right to vote by prisoners.
“The enjoyment of this right has to be activated by the EC because prisoners do not have the mobility to cast their votes,” he said.
He added that Article 17 of the Constitution says all persons should be treated equal, despite their social status, while Article 33 (5) did not limit the enjoyment of rights to only those expressed in the Constitution.
He said all those constitutional provisions had to be read together as they were all indicative of the fundamental nature of the right to vote.
“This issue does not require a constitutional interpretation. The right to vote is a fundamental, invaluable right and a serious constitutional matter that ought to be regarded with the same level of seriousness. Every law of the land is subservient to the Constitution,” he said.
Prof Attafuah said he believed that the EC did not need to be concerned with the safety of their staff if voting was to be conducted in prisons.
“The prisons are well equipped for the necessary safe conduct of an election. Other people such as nurses, doctors and pastors enter the prisons on a daily basis,” he said.
He advised that the right to vote had to be started by an extensive educational campaign by the EC, in collaboration with civil society organisations, for the prisoners.
Prof Attafuah was also of the view that civil and political rights were the most inexpensive rights in all jurisdiction to enjoy.
DAILY GRAPHIC, THURSDAY, MAY 15, 2OO8, PG 1