Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prisoners deserve the vote

New Zealand is a democracy. This means every adult gets to vote, right?

Wrong. The Electoral Act 1993 disqualifies various groups from voting. Some of this is reasonable - people who don't actually live here, for example, or those convicted of corrupt electoral practices like electoral fraud. Some of it is not. Currently we disqualify those undergoing long-term treatment for mental health - a measure inconsistent with Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which we ratified earlier in the year. We also disqualify those serving terms of imprisonment of three years or longer, including life sentences and sentences of indefinite detention.

We actually used to be worse. The Electoral Act 1956 disqualified anyone "detained in a hospital under the Mental Health Act" or "detained in any penal institution pursuant to a conviction". This was only repealed with the passage of the Electoral Act 1993, largely due to the influence of the BORA, which affirmed electoral rights subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society".

I'll leave the mental health disqualification for another day, because I want to focus on prisoners. National MP Paul Quinn currently has a bill in the member's ballot which seems to be aimed at returning us to the pre-1993 status quo, and stripping all prisoners of the vote. And this is simply untenable. While they have committed offences and are detained in prison, prisoners are still members of our society. They still have interests, which are no less important than anyone else's. And while they may not have to worry so much about healthcare and taxes, the fact that they are fully subject to the coercive power of the state means they have very strong interests in holding politicians to account for how that power is used. This means that we shouldn't be taking the vote off prisoners again - instead, we should be giving it back to them, and making sure that everyone in our society, even those serving long prison terms can vote. Anything less is simply undemocratic.

This has sparked some discussion over on Red Alert, and after a request, I've drafted a bill: the Electoral (Prisoners' Voting Rights) Amendment Bill. The trick now is finding an MP courageous enough to make the principled argument for democracy and put it in the ballot. Any takers?

Correction: I had misinterpreted s80(c)(iii), which applies only to those who become mentally disordered in prison. People who are merely detained for treatment, but not criminals or criminally insane are fully entitled to vote. Mea culpa, mea culpa. But it does make for a nice simple amendment to the bill.