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.