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Why prisoners should have the right to vote

by Christine McCarthy
During the recent royal visit to Wellington, Meghan Markle applauded New Zealand for giving women the right to vote 125 years ago. It was a moment we were all rightly proud of, her words fitting recognition of a country that was also an original signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its commitment to “universal and equal suffrage.” Despite this, not all New Zealanders have the right to vote. We deny this universal human right to people in prison, and we have been doing this, in different ways, for more than 125 years.

Initially this was when – crudely put – voting was the preserve of rich (mostly white) men. Consequently many people were excluded from voting. In 1867 Māori men were able to vote for one of the four Māori seats. In 1879 all Pākehā men over 21 were given the right to vote. Then of course women got the vote in 1893. But even universal male suffrage was not actually universal. Men serving sentences for convictions of “treason felony, or infamous offence” were disqualified from registering to vote. This point is key. Rather than disqualifying prisoners from voting, we remove prisoners from the electoral roll. As Chris Hipkins, now Minister of Education, noted in Parliament in December 2010:

“We are not depriving them of the right to vote just when they go to jail; we are removing them from the electoral roll, which means that even when they are finally released from jail, they are still not guaranteed the right to vote unless they re-enrol. We are talking about some of the most marginalised people in society. When they are released from prison, do we really think that their first priority will be to trot down to the post shop to get back on the electoral roll? … The reality is that if we remove prisoners from the electoral roll, the odds of their re-enrolling on the electoral roll in the future are very, very low. It is likely that we are ultimately depriving them of the ability to vote forever.”

Variations of this nineteenth-century electoral law continued into the twenty-first-century with people convicted of more serious offences being denied the right to vote while in prison. This was until 2010, when the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill was passed into law. The change it aimed for was to remove all prisoners from the electoral roll. The associated debate in Parliament had important moments of passion. Rahui Katene, from the Māori Party asked:

“Is the vote of an inmate worth less than the vote of someone who is an offender but who has not yet been caught? What is the judgment that is being made when we deem it appropriate to remove the right to vote from prisoners?”

Our current Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, was also opposed to the 2010 amendment. He suggested that debates on prisoner suffrage got to the core of what a democracy is and how we define human rights. He asked:

“At what point are we prepared to stand up for democracy and say that the people who challenge us in society still have the right to vote? Mr Bridges said that prisoners have forfeited their rights. I ask whether they have forfeited their right to eat, or their right to be not beaten up. I ask Mr Bridges where it ends. They have forfeited their rights — that is the view coming from members on the other side of the Chamber about the purpose of sending people to prison. It boils down to this question. Are we sending people to prison as a punishment, or are we sending people to prison for punishment?”

It is for similar reasons that the Wellington Branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform has initiated a Parliamentary Petition to repeal section 80(1)(d) of the Electoral Act 1993 in order to enable New Zealand prisoners to be eligible to vote in New Zealand elections. We support prisoners’ right to vote because voting is a human right and a fundamental part of citizenship. As Yale law professor Gideon Yaffe writes:

“We cannot hold citizens to account for violating our laws while denying them a say over those laws.”

Another important point is perhaps less obvious. Significantly more Māori are incarcerated than Pākehā relative to their proportion of the population. This means that denying prisoners voting rights disproportionately impacts on Māori participation in our democracy.

In her speech at Government House in Wellington last month, Meghan Markle asserted that

suffrage represents “the basic and fundamental human right of being able to participate in the choices for your future and that of your community, the involvement and voice that allows you to be a part of the very world that you are a part of.”

Likewise, legal scholar Nicola Lacey has written:

“The denial of the franchise is a powerful symbol of the exclusion of offenders from full membership of society, and that the knock-on effects of this sort of exclusion is one of the main barriers to the successful reintegration of ex-offenders into society following release.”

Yaffe extends this when he says:

“those who feel a sense of ownership in their government are less likely to commit crimes. Enfranchisement is a potential source of crime control.”

The Howard League believes it is well over time that, as a socially progressive country, New Zealand gave prisoners the right to vote. The Wellington Howard League’s Parliamentary Petition can be found at: https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/petitions/document/PET_81069/petition-of-christine-mccarthy-for-the-wellington-branch

Christine McCarthy is President of the Wellington Branch of the National Coalition of Howard Leagues for Penal Reform.

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