OSAKA – The Osaka High Court has ruled that denying prisoners the right to vote in public elections is unconstitutional — the first judgment on the Public Offices Election Law provision that disenfranchises those serving time.
The ruling Friday came in response to a lawsuit filed by Hiroshi Inagaki, 69, who was incarcerated at Shiga Prison from March to November 2010 for breaking the Road Traffic Law with an unauthorized demonstration. The term prevented him from voting in the Upper House election on July 11 that year.
Article 11 of the election law denies convicts the right to vote or run for office until the sentence has been carried out.
After serving his term, Inagaki sued the government for ¥1 million for undue mental suffering. Although the voting provision was ruled unconstitutional, the high court on Friday rejected his demand for compensation, saying the state cannot be held responsible for not removing the provision because there was not enough public debate on the matter while he was in prison.
The government argued at the high court that “prisoners substantially lack law-abiding spirit and it cannot be expected that they be fairly allowed to exercise the right to vote.”
In February, the Osaka District Court rejected Inagaki’s demands for acknowledging the unconstitutionality of the provision and for compensation, ruling that “it is inevitable that prisoners’ participation in society be restricted to a certain extent.”
“It is a great ruling for prisoners,” Inagaki, an advocate of workers’ rights, said at a news conference.
A member of his defense team concurred, saying: “Voting is the foundation of democracy. There is no way voting rights should be restricted easily. The ruling’s impact is far-reaching.”
Presiding Judge Hiroshi Kojima pointed out that the state recognizes inmates’ right to participate in national referendums on constitutional amendments.
He further said that “it is not difficult to let inmates vote using absentee ballots and other methods, and (being an inmate) does not constitute a reason to limit the right to vote. The restriction of one’s voting rights must not be allowed just because (he or she) is an inmate.”
Canada and South Africa previously limited inmates’ voting rights but abolished the practice after court rulings deemed it unconstitutional. In a 2004 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights also declared illegal a British law that did not recognize the voting rights of inmates.
An official at the Justice Ministry said it would be very difficult to proceed if all 67,800 inmates are permitted to vote.
According to the ministry’s Correction Bureau, about 67,000 people were incarcerated in 188 correctional facilities nationwide as of the end of last year. Of them, adults whose sentences had been finalized numbered around 58,000.
An increase in prison staff would be required to accommodate voting, if allowed, the bureau said.