Prisoners and the right to vote

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
The two opposing views on prisoner rights to vote are both coherent and have their supporters.

One says voting is a basic human right. Incarcerated prisoners lose their liberty but retain many other rights. What could be more fundamental, more universal, than the right to elect those who make laws on behalf of us all?

This country mostly has had harsh rules on prisoner franchise. These softened in 1993 when those with a sentence of less than three years were given the right to vote. One rationale was that these prisoners would be in the community at some stage during the term of that government.

This was reversed in 2010 after the passage of a private member's Bill, supported by National MPs, banning prisoners from being allowed to register to vote. The view that serious lawbreakers should not be among the lawmakers who shape society was put forward. Prisoners, by their crimes, had forfeited their right to vote. Once out of prison, they return to society and the rights it bestows, including the right to vote.

The Waitangi Tribunal this month has said the disenfranchisement is a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi. A majority of prisoners are Maori so this law falls disproportionately on them. The Supreme Court has also said the 2010 law was in breach of the Bill of Rights.

Labour has not made overturning the Act a priority. Being soft on law and order, which this could be seen to be, is not a winning strategy. Labour can also point to its busy programme.

Justice Minister Andrew Little, however, has made it clear he believes the time has come for changes. And Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said the pre-2010 situation should return. Cabinet is due to consider the matter in the coming weeks.

National leader Simon Bridges, meanwhile, has said that if the crime is serious enough for someone to go to jail and lose their liberty, they should also, while in jail, lose the right to vote.

The Greens - no surprise to anyone - want all prisoners to be able to vote, irrespective of sentence, as recommended in the Waitangi Tribunal's report.

Once again, New Zealand First and Winston Peters hold the balance. So far, Mr Peters is playing it coy, saying the party would wait for Cabinet and caucus discussions.

Again, Mr Peters can consider the political angles. The majority of his supporters are unlikely to favour stronger prisoner rights, but Mr Peters could see mileage in compromising in this area. He could promote an image of magnanimity, backing the three-year position while proclaiming the Greens' position as idealistic, ideological foolishness.

Attitudes are underpinned by perspectives on the purpose of jail. Those who emphasise punishment and deterrence are more likely to be against restoring the vote. Those who focus on rehabilitation and reintegration usually would prefer to allow prisoners in this way to continue to have a stake in society, to be given at least that amount of respect and dignity.

The middle road, that established before 2010, might not satisfy the purists on each end of the debate. But sometimes such approaches are pragmatic and as just as possible.

It lays down society's emphatic disapproval for those sentenced to more than three years. After all, a criminal's crime and/or record have to be serious for a term of that length.

At the same time, prisoner franchise maintains this link with civil society for most prisoners, most being jailed for less than three years. It tells them they might have lost their liberty, but they are not total pariahs. They still have value in this ability and right to contribute to democracy and how New Zealand is run.



Many people outside of prison with the right to vote do not always use their abilities to vote.

It doesn't sit well with me that a certain someone one could vote for a far right party from his prison cell. I am totally opposed.