The thorny is­sue of pris­on­ers vot­ing


Should pris­on­ers be al­lowed to vote? Cur­rently, only of­fend­ers serv­ing a sen­tence of three years or more lose the right to vote. Some peo­ple, how­ever, feel that any­thing short of the rack and the flog­ging post means that so­ci­ety is too soft on crim­i­nals.

They are the tar­get au­di­ence for Na­tional MP Paul Quinn’s Elec­toral ( Dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of Sen­tenced Pris­on­ers) Amend­ment Bill, which will strip all pris­on­ers of the right to vote.

Re­cently, the law and or­der se­lect com­mit­tee de­cided by a split ver­dict that Quinn’s bill should be passed. Iron­i­cally, that com­mit­tee in­cluded the now-dis­graced for­mer ACT MP David Gar­rett.

The bill has met with a storm of crit­i­cism.

Ear­lier this year, the At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Chris Fin­layson damned the bill in a re­port that cited how it vi­o­lated the New Zealand Bill of Rights, and the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on Civil and Po­lit­i­cal Rights that New Zealand claims to recog­nise.

The Law So­ci­ety and Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion also op­pose the Quinn leg­is­la­tion, which will put us in the com­pany of Bul­garia, Rus­sia and Ro­ma­nia.

In 2005, the Euro­pean Court in Stras­bourg ruled that Bri­tain’s de­nial of vot­ing rights to pris­on­ers – a relic of leg­is­la­tion that Bri­tain passed dur- ing the Vic­to­rian era – was in breach of the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion on Hu­man Rights, and this de­ci­sion was re-af­firmed in 2008.

The Quinn bill is putting New Zealand on a col­li­sion course with the bulk of en­light­ened in­ter­na­tional opin­ion.

For years, it was as­sumed that when peo­ple went to prison they lost a range of rights, in­clud­ing the right to vote.

Yet, as the Cana­dian courts ruled nearly 10 years ago, los­ing your lib­erty is the ac­tual pun­ish­ment for a crime.

Can­celling the right to vote be­longs in a dif­fer­ent league.

Con­victs, af­ter all, do not lose their cit­i­zen­ship, or their right to health­care or right to com­mu­ni­cate with their fam­i­lies when they get sent to jail – so why should they lose their right to vote?

Most will re­turn to so­ci­ety at some point, and en­cour­ag­ing them to vote can form a use­ful part of their rehabilitation.

Such points were raised in the sub­mis­sions made to the se­lect com­mit­tee, but did not sway Gar­rett or the ma­jor­ity of his com­mit­tee col­leagues.

In his re­port on the bill, the At­tor­ney-Gen­eral cited sev­eral ob­jec­tion­able as­pects.

Those on home de­ten­tion, he pointed out, could still vote, while those im­pris­oned for the same crime could not.

Peo­ple serv­ing a two-and-ahalf-year sen­tence for a se­ri­ous crime could vote, if their prison term co­in­cided with the pe­riod be­tween elec­tions – but those un­lucky enough to be sen­tenced to one week in jail just be­fore an elec­tion ( for say, not pay­ing their park­ing fines) could not.

The Quinn bill is ex­pected to be­come law be­fore the next elec­tion.

Be­cause poor peo­ple and eth­nic mi­nori­ties form a sig­nif­i­cant part of the prison pop­u­la­tion, most peo­ple dis­en­fran­chised by it seem un­likely to have been ACT or Na­tional Party vot­ers.

Ar­guably, let­ting those in jail have the vote could help their re-en­try to so­ci­ety to be suc­cess­ful.

Whether we ad­mit it or not, pris­on­ers are still part of the wider com­mu­nity.

Gor­don Camp­bell is an ex­pe­ri­enced po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist and colum­nist who has writ­ten for The Lis­tener and Scoop.

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