A Prisoner is still a Citizen

Whether you follow politics religiously, only vote because it is your democratic duty or regularly make the choice not to vote, the right to vote and the choice whether or not to make that vote is a right afforded to you by the mere virtue of being an adult. That is, of course, unless you happen to be serving a prison sentence at the time of the vote.

Unlike many other countries today, New Zealand does not allow our prisoners the right to vote. Since the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010, all those sentenced to imprisonment have lost their right to vote under section 80(1)(d) of the Electoral Act 1993. Before Parliament brought in the 2010 amendment, prisoner disenfranchisement was limited to persons serving a prison sentence of three years or longer. Since the 2010 amendment, New Zealand has had a blanket ban on prisoner voting.


Source: Lyndon Hood

Section 80(1)(d) provides that ‘a person who is detained in a prison pursuant to a sentence of imprisonment’ is disqualified for registration. The way the law has been written has the effect of being unfair and unequal in punishment. It effectively transforms a person from a citizen with outside concerns and a say into a prisoner with no voice. It takes away the right of a person to have a say in matters that will affect them, their family and their future. Considering the effect that elections have on prison policy and a prisoner’s everyday life, and our high rate of incarceration here in New Zealand, this law is undemocratic. It deprives a sector of society the right to be represented.

The application of this law can also be unfair and somewhat arbitrary. It allows the right to vote for a person serving a two-and-a-half year term in-between elections, but takes away the right to vote from a person serving a three month term that coincides with the election. This does not seem fair or reasonable when considering we are dealing with a human right, something that is supposed to be handled with care and not to be disregarded lightly.

As the law currently applies, only those persons sentenced to a term of imprisonment are deprived the vote. Voting rights are still extended to persons on remand and home detention and persons who have been imprisoned before. However, it is not hard to see how this removal of rights could be applied to home detention, remand and other forms of punishment in the future. The law as it stands in New Zealand by removing prisoners’ rights to vote is removing prisoners’ representation in society.

The current blanket ban in place in New Zealand also goes against New Zealand’s international obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and domestic obligations under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZBORA). Under Article 25 of the ICCPR and section 12(a) of the NZBORA, a country needs to ensure that a person has a right to take part in a free and equal election. Taking away these rights flies in the face of New Zealand’s obligations, and cannot be argued away under the guise of punishment or rehabilitation.

This is a guest post from Jay Engelbrecht, a member of both JustSpeak and the University of Auckland’s Equal Justice Project. An upcoming panel discussion will explore prisoners’ voting rights, featuring Paul Rishworth from the University of Auckland, Diane White from Justspeak and David Farrar from Kiwiblog. Further details can be found here.