The prisoner voting ban is still a disgrace

Arthur William Taylor was released from prison this month, and is set to continue his legal work started behind bars including campaigning to restore voting rights to people in prison. But why did prisoners lose the right to vote in the first place?  

On November 10, 2010, a young Simon Bridges took to the floor in parliament to declare his support for a bill that would apparently protect a “right that people have gone to war for, have fought over, and have shed blood over.” For Bridges, the National government’s commitment to protecting this right put supporters – in his own words – “on the side of the angels here.”

Most people could be forgiven for casting their minds to policies that deserve the esteemed nature of the label. Was it a commitment to preserving human life overseas? Perhaps the government had found a solution for homelessness in New Zealand? No. Bridges and his fellow party members, the self-professed ‘angels’ of human rights in New Zealand, didn’t take a stand to protect any rights at all. Rather, he stood to undermine one of the most fundamental entitlements in any democratic society: the right to vote.

A younger Arthur Taylor is bundled into a police car in handcuffs. In 2016 Taylor successfully challenged the government’s blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections.

The 2010 Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act removed the right to vote from all serving prisoners in New Zealand. Prior to this, a ban on prisoner voting applied only to incarcerated people serving a sentence of three or more years. At the time, the removal of all prisoners’ access to the ballot was, in the opinion of then Attorney-General, Chris Finlayson, “unjustifiably inconsistent with the electoral rights affirmed by s 12 of the Bill of Rights Act.”

Since the bill was passed, public interest in the issue has fluctuated, usually during election years. Recently, for example, Awatea Mita wrote a powerful piece for The Spinoff about the indignity incarcerated people face by not having a right to vote on issues that have an impact on their communities and whānau. JustSpeak’s Tania Sawicki Mead and Ashlesha Sawant have similarly argued that disenfranchisement disproportionately affects Māori participation in democratic processes and inhibits the reintegration of people into New Zealand communities. Even the Supreme Court has weighed in with a landmark decision which ruled that removing the right to vote is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. Little over a month later the Waitangi Tribunal announced an urgent hearing on Māori prisoners having the right to vote.

Despite renewed public interest in prisoner voting rights, the Labour-led coalition, Justice Minister Andrew Little specifically, has stated that restoring the right to vote for prisoners in New Zealand was not on the government’s priority list. To be fair, politicians are charged with balancing an insurmountable list of priorities in their ever-lasting bid to curry favour with constituents. Yet, the contrast of the government’s current stance with their passionate pleas in 2010 is jarring, and – for any advocates optimistic about potential changes to the criminal justice system – slightly concerning. Preventing the voting ban was a ‘priority’ for the Labour Opposition in 2010 when – as Anna Whyte has pointed out – current Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, labelled the bill a “disgraceful attack on democracy.” Speaking in the same debate, a young Jacinda Ardern proclaimed that voting was “much more than just a right.” At the time, members of the Opposition seemed capable of finding countless reasons for why a ban on prisoner voting rights was not appropriate. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself to repeal a law that one of its members had previously described as nothing more than “a political pamphlet,” the new Labour-led government were comparatively quiet when the Supreme Court released its decision in 2018.

For the supporters of the bill, the removal of the right to vote was justified solely in terms that seemed to indicate that it was widely accepted and encouraged by the New Zealand public. In his opening statement to Parliament, Paul Quinn, the original sponsor of the bill, argued that implementing a blanket ban on the right to vote was perfectly consistent with the demands of who he called “the ordinary sort of bloke.” Quinn saw no need to engage with expert opinions from those he labelled the “boffins in ivory towers” – academics, legal professionals, advocates, and other people that had otherwise dedicated their entire lives to criminal justice reform. He did, however, affirm the House that his research process on the bill was thorough. “There is no mischief [behind this bill],” Quinn informed the House. “This legislation is what the overwhelming majority of people want. I suggest to the Labour Opposition members that if they should for a moment go out and consult their constituents, as I have done in the Hutt Valley, they will find that the starting point for most members of the community is that they think prisoners cannot vote.” When pressed for information about his extensive research process, Quinn informed Parliament that he had “spoken to 50 people at an assembly of Grey Power, and all those people supported this bill.”

Throughout parliamentary debates on prisoner voting rights, supporters failed to specifically state how a ban served any notable criminal justice functions. They cited no evidence that a ban on voting rights would deter individuals from committing crime and they failed to specify how a voting ban would help with rehabilitation and reintegration. Admittedly, this would have been a hard ask, because no such evidence exists; in fact, if anything, existing research on prison voting rights indicates that, far from reducing crime rates and helping with a person’s return to society, undermining the right to vote may result in continued isolation, therefore resulting in more crime.

For promoters of a voting ban, the lack of supporting evidence was inconsequential. Instead, they relied on the argument that those who were in prison must have committed serious crimes and were consequently deserving of punitive punishment and undeserving of the right to vote. Supporters saw no need to justify their stance, instead placing that burden of proof on the Opposition. As an exasperated Simon Bridges put it, “Labour says that we should give prisoners the vote. All I ask of those Labour members who stand in this House and speak on this bill is that they give me some substantive reasons why prisoners should vote.” In short, the National government successfully argued that a ban on prisoner voting rights was justified because ‘the ordinary sort of bloke’ demanded it; they consequently framed themselves as simply performing their duty as ‘angelic’ protectors of democracy.

While few could deny the importance of the government responding to the demands of the public – this is, after all, the very purpose of democracy – the government’s ‘consultation’ with constituents was far from extensive. The claim that the public ‘overwhelmingly’ supported the bill seems tentative, at best. To my knowledge, there was no widespread public polling on the bill, the legislation barely made mainstream news, and of all public submissions made at the Select Committee stage, just two written submissions – one of which was written by Paul Quinn himself – supported the change. Despite claims that they were protecting democracy, the removal of prison voting rights was implemented in a manner that seems to undermine many principles of democracy. Not only did supporters aim to remove what is widely considered a fundamental human right in many democratic societies, they did so in such a way that failed to generate informed public debate on the issue, and removed the possibility of any evidence-based opposition to be expressed. Regardless of one’s position on prison voting rights, most can probably agree that any policy that aims to remove such rights from any member of the New Zealand community deserves a proper, thorough public conversation.

Preventing people in prison from being able to vote sets a dangerous precedent where ‘universal rights’ are not, in fact, universal and unconditional, but limited in an abstract and undemocratic way. Removing the right to vote happens automatically, with little consideration for how it serves the interest of the community, or how it is proportional to any harm caused. The prison voting ban is based, instead, on whether or not our criminal justice system hands a person a prison sentence, a policy that violates the democratic institutions that New Zealanders have supposedly “gone to war over… and have shed blood over.”

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Restoring the right to vote sends an important message to people in prison. It says that, while we may hurt from harm that has been caused, we also believe in rehabilitation and transformative change. It shows them that they have a responsibility and a way to invest in the future of their communities. It tells New Zealanders in prison that their status as ‘citizens’, ‘community members’, and ‘human beings’ is valued and upheld. That is what a hard-fought for democracy looks like.

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Daniel Both is a volunteer for JustSpeak. Its online petition to make voting a right for all is here.


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