NZCCL on Electoral Disqualification

New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties submission about the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill. Current law says that prisoners given a sentence of longer than 3 years cannot vote. This bill extends that to all prisoners.

The Council opposes this change and recommends that this provision should be removed from the law, not extended.

Submission in Respect of the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill

1.0 Introduction

1.1 I make this submission on behalf of the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties Inc (NZCCL).

1.2 This Bill is remarkably brief and consists solely of two very small amendments – to, respectively, a subparagraph and a paragraph of two sections in the Electoral Act 1993. The smallness in size belies the significance of the amendment.

1.3 NZCCL wholeheartedly supports the proposal to amend the two existing sections. However, rather than substituting two replacement paragraphs, NZCCL proposes that the two existing paragraphs be deleted in their entirety from the Electoral Act 1993.

2.0 Comment

2.1 Currently only those persons who are serving a term of imprisonment of 3 years or more are disqualified for registration as an elector. Imprisonment for this period indicated a serious crime against the community, and the degree of seriousness is was regarded as sufficient justification for requiring some further forfeiture of rights, such as the right to vote. Now it is proposed to extend that forfeiture to those who have committed less serious crimes.

3.0 Practical Aspects

3.1 While NZCCL is unsure of the number of prisoners who are serving a term of imprisonment of less than 3 years and the number whose term of imprisonment is 3 years or more, we are informed that in the past 12 months to 31 May 2010 there have been 995 people removed from the roll as a result of Registrars of Electors receiving advice from Prisons that they are holding people who have been sentenced to a term of 3 or more years imprisonment. The proposal to include also those persons who have committed less serious offences will have minimal significance from a voting perspective. 

3.2 The right to vote is, properly, a fundamental plank of democracy in New Zealand. Indeed, S.12 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states that every New Zealand citizen who is of or over the age of 18 years – (a) has the right to vote in genuine periodic elections … Any limitation of that right must be both reasonable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.

3.3 The proposed removal of that right from those who are serving a term of imprisonment of less than 3 years (or, as NZCCL advocates, the return of that right to those whose term of imprisonment is 3 years of more) is hardly likely to have any material practical impact, except on the individuals concerned.

3.4 Even if the total number of inmates, say 9,000 on average, were to exercise a right to vote – which is probably an unlikely proposition – the actual impact of those votes is miniscule since persons detained in a prison vote in relation to the electorate in which they were enrolled on the basis of where they resided before they were imprisoned. So, the impact of their votes is significantly dissipated.

3.5 NZCCL notes that the exercise of a vote by a prisoner is a 2-step process viz. – the prerequisite of being already enrolled in an electorate followed by the later decision to vote when an election occurs. NZCCL suggests that this combination probably means that a relatively small proportion of those serving a term of imprisonment are sufficiently mindful of those steps and interested enough to participate in the process.

3.6 The effect of these observations indicates very strongly that the nature of the proposed amendment is almost predominantly symbolic. Even so, the ability to vote is of such fundamental importance in a democratic society that any move to weaken further the idea of universal suffrage by removing the vote for a certain class of persons is to be strongly resisted.

4.0 Symbolic Aspects

4.1 While the practical implications of the proposed amendment (in both formats) are minimal the symbolic implications are rather more significant. NZCCL suggests that the symbolism can be viewed in at least 2 ways.

4.2 Looking first at the proposal contained in the Bill, the removal of the right to vote (leaving aside whether or not it is exercised) is a further reduction in the dignity and humanity of the individual serving the term of imprisonment. The removal of liberty and other privileges associated with life outside a prison is a proper consequence of conviction, and their removal has a tangible impact and is exactly what is intended.

4.3 Some may question whether prisoners even care at all about whether or not they have a right to vote, and and may even suggest that if it were to be removed for all persons serving a term of imprisonment regardless of the length, it is probably likely to be met with a mere shrug of the shoulders and a “so what” attitude.

4.4 Such a view is far too dismissive of those in prison and leads to thinking of them as being less than other citizens, which seems to be precisely the motivation behind this Bill. While it might seem inappropriate to consider the impact of this proposal on those who are in prison, this Bill does seem clearly designed to indicate that those persons are both unwanted and lesser members of society, the reality is that, regardless of their offences, those in prison are also human beings. Moreover, most of those persons are one day going to be released into our society when their sentences are finished.

5.0 Academic Exercise 

5.1 NZCCL considers that both proposed amendments are largely an academic exercise, and as such provide an opportunity to demonstrate either a heart that is hardened or one that is compassionate. The prisoner's fate has already been determined and judgment passed, so any decision now is less a judgment of the prisoner than it is of the legislators. The legislator's fate is in their own hands, so in judging the other one also judges oneself. This is an opportunity to look into one's own heart and make a decision based on what one finds there.

6.0 Summary

6.1 NZCCL believes that there are 2 humanitarian options. The favoured option is to repeal S.80 (1) (d) and S.81 of the Electoral Act 1993. The fall-back option is to decide that no further consideration is to be given to the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill.

6.2 There is really nothing to be gained by proceeding with this Bill other than to provide some appeasement to those who wish to punish further those who are already serving a term of imprisonment, regardless of how short that term of imprisonment may be. The current proposal shows no justification for removing the right to vote from an additional small group of persons who have committed less serious offences. The only tangible benefit is the saving of a few dollars of taxpayer funding. 

7.0 Oral Submission

7.1 NZCCL requests the opportunity to make an oral submission.