House Divided over Pretrial Detainees’ Voting Rights

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Members of the House of Representatives are divided over whether pretrial detainees across the country, should be eligible to vote in elections.

Pretrial detention refers to an accused person who is detained in a criminal case before his trial begins, either because of a failure to post bail or due to the denial of release under a pre-trial status.

The heated argument among lawmakers yesterday which marked the 2nd Day Sitting, stemmed from a letter from Bong County District #3 Representative, George S. Mulbah, Sr.

In a letter to Speaker J. Emmanuel Nuquay, Rep. Mulbah requested that the House mandate the National Elections Commission (NEC) to open registration precincts at various prison facilities across the country to enable people who are pretrial detainees to exercise their right to register and subsequently vote in this year’s Presidential and Legislative Elections.

“Article 77 (b) of the Constitution of Liberia gives Liberian citizens 18 years and above the constitutional right to vote,” Rep. Mulbah’s letter stated.

“All elections shall be by secret ballot as may be determined by the Elections Commission, and every Liberian citizen not less than 18 years of age, shall have the right to be registered as a voter and to vote in public elections and referenda under this Constitution. The Legislature shall enact laws including the category of Liberians who shall not form or become members of political parties,” the Bong lawmaker wrote the House.

Rep. Mulbah said the Electoral Reform Law of Liberia clearly states that those convicted and are serving imprisonment are ineligible to vote as well as those with unstable minds.

Section (16) 5.1 of the Electoral Reform States: “Section 5.1: Who may vote: Except one who has been judicially declared to be incompetent or of unsound mind, or who has been barred from voting as a result of his/her conviction and imprisonment for an infamous crime which disenfranchised him as a voter and has not been restored to full citizenship, a Liberian citizen who has attained the age of 18 years or above with a valid registration card may vote at any election in the voting precinct of the electoral district for which he/she is registered.”

He added: “Hon. Speaker, as the lawmaking body, protecting the rights of all citizens, should a major concern (arise) and given a provision of the constitution and that of another extant law, I believe this body should ensure that the rights of pretrial detainees be respected during the pending electoral process.”

Nimba County District #8 Representative Larry Younguoi and Sinoe County District #3 Representative Matthew Zayzay supported the argument, and said pretrial detainees should have the right to vote, because they are presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Grand Gedeh County District #2 Representative Morias T. Waylee and Nimba County District #1 Representative Jeremiah Koung indicated that “pretrial detainees should vote, because they are not convicted prisoners.”

Those who are against pretrial detainees’ right to vote in elections, arguing that it is baseless, ridiculous and a waste of time include Rep. Alex Grant (Grand Gedeh), Rep. Tokpa Mulbah (Bong County) and Rep. Alfred Koiwood (Gbarpolu).

They stated that “arrested and imprisoned citizens should not vote despite being in pretrial status” because their rights and liberties are limited owing to their crimes and furthermore it would have major “financial implications.”

Montserrado County District #4 Representative Henry B. Fahnbulleh said the “case in study for pretrial detainees to vote in elections is complicated,” and he therefore suggested that pretrial detainees should be divided into minor and major offenses.

Meanwhile, members of the House unanimously forwarded Rep. Mulbah’s letter to the Committees on Judiciary and Elections to advise Plenary by Thursday, January 19 as to whether the rights of pretrial detainees to vote should be upheld.

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