Bryce Edwards: Should we care about prisoners voting?

Bryce Edwards: Should we care about prisoners voting?

There has been little real debate on an important Government announcement made last weekend. Justice Minister Andrew Little said the Government had decided to give the right to vote back to prisoners with sentences of three years or less.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that there was no great reaction. After all, the change affects so few prisoners – about 1900 – and is likely to have no real electoral impact. And, in fact, the Government was probably keen for as little publicity as possible, given their fear of any negativity from conservative voters about being too liberal on crime.

For the details, see Isaac Davison’s Prisoners serving sentences of less than three years to vote at 2020 election. And for a background to the issue, see my earlier roundups: Will the Government reverse the “fascist” ban on prisoner voting?, and Suffrage reality check – prisoners still can’t vote.

There was certainly something for progressives to celebrate in the Government’s decision. This announcement was the culmination of a long campaign by justice reformers, including some maverick prisoners – see Andrew Geddis’ The reversal of the prisoner voting ban is a big move, and especially sweet for two men.

The National Party sought to create a backlash over the issue, with leader Simon Bridges calling the decision “soft on crime” and promising to reverse the decision once in government. But, despite the rhetoric, there isn’t actually a huge difference between the major parties on the issue, as Labour has decided to retain the voting ban on prisoners with longer sentences. Essentially, they’ve agreed to revert to the pre-2010 situation in which only those prisoners with sentences of more than three years are prohibited from voting.

I’ve written about this today in the Guardian, arguing that this amounts to a half-measure, and is the bare minimum the Government could get away with given recent declarations against the ban from the Waitangi Tribunal and the Supreme Court – see: Ardern’s prisoner voting compromise exposes the cynicism of NZ politics.

I argue this compromise “solution” falls short of what progressives might really want: “Progressives – and possibly even most Labour MPs – support all prisoners being given the right to vote. But the government fears this would be too unpopular and so has compromised, hoping to appease progressive voters with an improvement, but not scare conservatives by retaining the voting ban for the worst criminals.”

Essentially the Labour-led Government is allowing the National Party to set the agenda on law and order issues, and it “doesn’t augur well for next year’s election campaign, which could descend into an auction of awfulness on crime and punishment.”

Other commentators have also lamented that the Government hasn’t been braver. Blogger No Right Turn says the decision “raises a number of questions. Most obviously, why they’re not going the whole way, and restoring voting rights to every prisoner, rather than just going back to the status quo ante? Because the arguments for short-term prisoners being able to vote apply just as powerfully to long-term ones. But Labour is the government of half-measures, so I guess that’s all we’ll ever get from them” – see: Erasing the infamy.

Former Alliance MP Liz Gordon has challenged the decision to re-introduce the three-year prison sentence as the threshold for voting rights: “While National can be criticised for its essentially nonsensical position, the Labour coalition really are not much better.  What the government has done is applied exactly the same test as National but simply drawn the line higher. Those people sentenced to more than three years in prison are beyond the pale. They should not be allowed to vote. Really? Why three years, and not two or four?” – see: Votes for all.

Gordon ponders whether Labour’s argument for excluding some prisoners from voting amounts to some sort of slippery slope: “Are ‘prisoners’ the only category we may want to exclude? How about ‘white supremacists’, for example, or men who watch child pornography. That’s the tricky thing about values – they are a slippery slope down which the principles of a universal suffrage can quickly disappear.”

Similarly, Gordon Campbell puts the case against the three-year “arbitrary” threshold for human rights: “Usually when the state imposes subsequent restrictions on rights in the wake of criminal sentences being served – eg on the future ability to own weapons, or to drive vehicles – there is a direct connection between the original offence and this subsequent restriction of rights. Cancelling the right to vote though, bears no such connection to the original offence. It seems utterly gratuitous” – see: On restoring prisoners’ right to vote.

Of course, it was a difficult decision for Labour. Writing prior to the announcement, the Herald’s Audrey Young explains that the party “has to balance its reforming instincts with the electoral reality” – see: Labour squeezed from all sides on prisoner voting ban, no one happy (paywalled).

A moderate path had to be found, because “the Labour Party again finds itself in a halfway house pleasing no one between the ‘hard on crime’ coalition partner New Zealand First and the ‘soft on crime’ confidence and supply partner in the Greens.”

Elaborating on this, the Otago Daily Times pointed out earlier that liberalising too much would be seen as “soft on law and order” and would not be “a winning strategy” – see the editorial, Prisoners and the right to vote.

The newspaper endorsed a compromise solution: “The middle road, that established before 2010, might not satisfy the purists on each end of the debate. But sometimes such approaches are pragmatic and as just as possible.”

The Herald appeared to take a similar position, believing that a middle road should be taken by reverting to the 2010 status quo – see the editorial, Voting ban on prisoners is all stick, no carrot (paywalled).

But is the issue even that important? Not according to talkback radio host Andrew Dickens, who says Anger over prisoner voting rights is a lot of hot air. He says both sides of the debate are engaging in “hollow virtue signalling” over something of little consequence – especially as few prisoners are likely to take up the opportunity to vote anyhow.

Similarly, columnist Martin van Beynen thinks it’s a non-issue: “The kerfuffle reflects a trend where a minor issue distracts from more important problems much more deserving of attention. Those relatively trivial issues then become like a scout badge for the bleeding heart left, another box to tick to prove their empathy with the oppressed” – see: Prisoners have forfeited the right to vote.

Van Beynen also succinctly explains why prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to vote: “Some have asked what purpose the disfranchisement serves. Pretty obvious, I would have thought. A prison sentence is essentially treating adults like naughty and sometimes dangerous toddlers.”

Liam Hehir gives a more theoretical explanation: “The basic premise of the social contract is that people exchange total freedom of action for the protection the rules the legitimate government. If you are found unwilling to adhere to those rules, being stripped of your right to influence them for the period of your ostracisation. After all, what is prison but a period of suspended freedom? When the prisoner is restored to the community, he or she is then, of course, permitted to participate in the act of governing once more. The return full democratic and civil rights is mark of the former prisoner’s restoration to society” – see: Prisoner voting ban: Not required; not not required.

But what does the public think about the issue? According to a recent Colmar Brunton survey, there’s a majority in favour of liberalisation: “The poll found 26 per cent of people believed all prisoners should vote and 28 per cent wanted just prisoners serving sentences with three years or less to be able to vote – pulling total support for sentences three years or less to 53 per cent. Forty-four per cent were against any prisoner voting” – see 1News’ Pressure to reinstate prisoner voting rights grows as 1News poll reveals over 50 per cent public backing.

What do the prisoners think? According to one report, there is a desire to participate – see Denise Piper’s Prisoners want to vote in council elections, general election.

One prisoner is quoted, making the case against the prisoner voting ban: “I’ve voted in every other election prior to coming to jail and I had hoped that my human rights would have been upheld… It raises the concern that if they’re willing to overlook our human rights, who’s next? People in the community – the disabled, mental health facilities – who else is at risk of losing their vote?”

Finally, with the general political climate on crime and punishment heating up, it’s worth looking at satire on the issue – see my blog post, Cartoons about the politics of law and order in NZ.