Bryce Edwards: Suffrage reality check – prisoners still can’t vote

Bryce Edwards: Suffrage reality check – prisoners still can’t vote

Yesterday marked 125 years to the day since women first voted in a New Zealand General Election. However, celebrations received a reality check when an inconvenient truth resurfaced in a new campaign – the fact that not all New Zealand women have suffrage, because prisoners are still denied the right to participate in elections.

The campaign to give the vote to prisoners has been launched by the justice reform campaign group, JustSpeak, which has started a new petition: Right to Vote for All. The petition, which includes an open letter to Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, currently has around 200 signatories.

Here’s the key message: “We believe that in a fair and democratic society all members should have the right to vote, and people living in prisons are part of our society. They are valued members of communities and families. To take away their right to vote is an unfair disenfranchisement.”

In conjunction with this new campaign, two very compelling videos have been released that deal with suffrage issues and voting. Yesterday, the first video about women in prison not being able to vote was launched: Can’t: the NZ women still unable to vote, 125 years after suffrage.

And today, the second in the series “examines some of the many and complex reasons why, after 125 years of women’s suffrage, so many women don’t vote” – see: Don’t: the NZ women still not voting, 125 years after suffrage.

To accompany these videos, the Spinoff website is also running a series of articles on prisoners’ suffrage. The most important one for explaining the arguments in favour of prisoners being able to enrol and vote is by JustSpeak’s Tania Sawicki Mead and Ashelsha Sawant – see: To call ourselves a truly representative democracy, this voting law must change.

Looking at the current law that bans prisoners from voting, they say: “It’s the worst kind of anti-democratic law – harsh, disproportionate and fundamentally at odds with the idea that human rights belong to all of us.” And they also point out that New Zealand is an outlier in this regard: “Most democracies around the world either allow prisoners to vote or have recently reinstated their right to do so. New Zealand lags behind in comparison as one of the handful of countries who still have a blanket ban.”

For a poignant argument in favour of prisoner voting, it’s worth reading a very personal account from Awatea Mita, who has spent time in prison – see: A society that denies the incarcerated a vote is a society stamping on human rights. She argues: “Rehabilitation as a safe, responsible, and productive member of an egalitarian society must include the most basic right of the democratic process — the right to participate in choosing who governs, the right to vote. There is research that shows an association between civic engagement, such as being able to vote, and the reduction of offending.”

The role of the Supreme court in suffrage rights

The campaign for reform has been given a massive boost by the landmark New Zealand Supreme Court declaration earlier this month that the ban on prisoners voting – passed in 2010 as the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act – is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. This is best covered by Sam Hurley in his news report, Supreme Court upholds decision saying ban on prisoner voting inconsistent with Bill of Rights.

This report quotes Justice Paul Heath, who made the decision in order to “draw to the attention of the New Zealand public that Parliament has enacted legislation inconsistent with a fundamental right”.

The article provides some history of the ban on prisoner voting in New Zealand. It also, interestingly, cites Jacinda Ardern’s strong opposition to the current voting ban, quoting her statements from when she was Labour’s spokesperson on Justice. For example, Ardern said, “This was an arbitrary law and one that is full of contradictions and inconsistencies” and “Parliament has a responsibility to respect fundamental rights for all. The Government now has a responsibility to assure all New Zealanders it understands that”.

For more on the process of the case being brought to the Supreme Court by current prisoner Arthur Taylor, see Alex Baird’s Kiwi prisoners’ right to vote upheld Supreme Court rules. Taylor appeared in the Supreme Court case via audio-video link from prison, and when he won the case, he says there was celebration from his fellow inmates. Taylor says: “Some of them have made me a cake out of biscuits and things they can buy on their purchases, so that was quite nice, the thought’s there anyway”.

Will the Government extend suffrage to prisoners?

The above article also quotes Justice Minister Andrew Little explaining that although the courts had ruled against the ban, he didn’t see it as a priority to correct the error. Instead, he explained that his priority was to fix the judicial-legislative constitution problems caused by the landmark ruling: “The priority is to get in place a process that requires parliament to respond to any declaration made by the courts on inconsistency with the Bill of Rights.”

Elsewhere, Andrew Little has said that, although he personally opposed the ban on prisoner voting rights, he didn’t see it as a “priority” for the current government, and he’s been reported as believing that “Ministers were unlikely to consider the issue for at least a year” – see RNZ’s Youth advocacy group disappointed in govt’s stance on prisoner votes.

This article also reports JustSpeak’s Tania Sawicki Mead’s response that Little’s stance “was hypocritical because in opposition Labour MPs opposed the law change banning voting”. Mead is quoted: “I think it’s a question of how much this basic issue of access to democracy and your fundamental right to participate is a priority to this government or not… I hope that they seriously consider making it a part of their legislative agenda next year.”

Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury has reacted with incredulity that the Labour-led Government would essentially oppose returning votes to prisoners, and argues that this decision is based on political pragmatism trumping principles: “Little’s kicked for touch so as to not infuriate NZs easily angered sensible sentencing lynch mob” – see: In just 7 words did Andrew Little demolish real prison reform?

Bradbury explains how the complete ban on prisoner voting came out of the National Party opportunistically playing to a conservative audience, but Labour is now doing the same: “So smart politics to play to the angriest and most easily upset elements off society, but to also shrug off the crucial point that prisoners do have human rights regardless of imprisonment actually cuts to the very heart of the issues Little is attempting to force change on.”

Another blogger, No Right Turn, is also outraged that Labour have decided not to advance a remedy for the problem with urgency: “This is simply not acceptable. When the Supreme Court makes a ruling like this, it should automatically become a priority for Parliament, and should be formally drawn to its attention for a response. The government has already signalled that that is what it wants to do in future, so why won’t it do it in this case? And there’s a pressing need: we’re having an election in 2020, and it would simply be unacceptable given the ruling for prisoners to be unable to vote in it” – see: “Not a priority”.

Furthermore, see his update from yesterday: “in Parliament today the government said that they hadn’t even considered the issue and that it wasn’t a priority for them. Which tells us everything we need to know. This government is not committed to fundamental human rights, and is quite willing to violate them for political profit” – see: Still not their priority.

For the best analysis on the Government’s reluctance to enact universal suffrage, see Gordon Campbell’s On prisoner voting. He points to New Zealand First as the primary barrier to reform.

Here’s Campbell’s main explanation: “Not for the first time, prisoners are being treated as political footballs. Just as the Key government played to the redneck vote back in 2010, Little seems OK about Labour becoming captive to the hardline ‘lock ‘em up’ faction that exists within New Zealand First. Earlier this year, Little had been blindsided by NZF leader Winston Peters when Labour tried to scrap the “Three Strikes” legislation. Rather than risk losing a similar fight, Little now seems gun-shy about fighting at all on this issue.”

On the question of whether fixing the problem should be a priority, Campbell says this should be obvious: “Centre-left governments used to think that the rights of prisoners shouldn’t be sacrificed to indulge the desire for societal revenge. I’d also have thought that – when you’re the Justice Minister – defending section 12 of our Bill of Rights should be a priority.”

There is now a chance that the Government might be pressured to give the vote back to prisoners, with the Green Party launching their own campaign yesterday – see Henry Cooke’s Green Party makes call for law change to allow prisoners the right to vote.

According to this, the Green Party’s Justice spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman “is asking Justice Minister Andrew Little to prioritise the change, but legislation would be needed, so NZ First would need to get onboard. The party has not ruled out attempting the change as a members’ bill.”

Finally, when we think about extending the electoral franchise, perhaps we need to think about lowering the qualifying age as well. Today, Azaria Howell has made the case for it being two years lower – see: Make it 16: a teenager on why we should lower the voting age.