Hosting elections in prison: what prisoners will go through

By Bronson Perich

Hosting elections in prison isn't easy.

The law allows all prisoners on remand to vote, and those who are serving sentences of three years or less.

But enrolling prisoners is complex. Ministry of Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales explains how Corrections works with inmates.

Enrolling prisoners to vote

“Engagement with prisoners involves prison staff talking to each prisoner about their eligibility to enrol to vote,” Beales says.

These conversations are either one-to-one or in small group sessions.

“Staff assist prisoners to complete the enrolment application form,” he says.

Completed forms are then scanned and emailed to the Electoral Commission. Prisoners are given the option for their names to be kept on the unpublished roll to protect their identities. This roll is separate from the publicly held electoral rolls.

Which electorate?

The Electoral Act dictates how a prisoner’s electorate is chosen. Section 72 of the act says the address in which an inmate lived in for at least a month before imprisonment is where their electorate will be.

Beales says the Electoral Commission advised Corrections on what to do if a prisoner did not have a fixed address before internment.

“They are able to use the last physical address where they lived for at least a month,” he says.

“Our staff work with people to help them identify which address they should use.”

Prisoners can register the prison as their mailing address so Electoral Commission mail can be sent to them.

Prisoners sentenced for longer than three years have their names removed from the electoral roll but Corrections staff pass on an enrolment pack to inmates upon release.

Voting in advance

Electoral Community Project leader Mona-Pauline Mangakahika tells all - Video / File

Prisoners will vote once advance voting starts. Polling booths will be set up on site and run by Electoral Commission staff. Beales says the aim isto provide prisoners with as near to the same voting experience the general public have.

“Each site has identified dates and times when voting services will be delivered at the prison during the advanced voting period, to spread the demand on electoral staff,” Beales says.

Corrections staff are responsible for security during this process. If prisoners cannot be moved from their cells to polling booths, arrangements will be made for them to vote in their cells.

Civics education for inmates

To help familiarise inmates with political issues, prisoners have access to TV and radio. Literature is supplied to prison libraries.

“Corrections will also ensure prisoners have access to referendum material for this year’s election,” Beales says.

This ensures prisoners can make an informed decision about the legalisation of cannabis and end-of-life referenda.

Does the prisoner vote matter?

Asked about the importance of prison voting, Electoral Commission senior project manager - community engagement Mona-Pauline Mangakahia noted that was beyond the commission's scope.

"Kei te Pāremata, it's up to Parliament to set those laws, as to who is eligible to vote," she says.

She says the role of the Electoral Commission is to ensure those who are eligible to vote, can do so.

Protecting the election from Covid-19

Mangakahia explains how they plan to keep Covid-19 out of the election.

"We have measures to help keep voters and staff safe," she says.

Those measures include distancing booths and ample hand sanitiser stations.

Voters can also place their ballots by post. They can register for postal voting by calling 0800 36 76 56. To enrol or check where they are enrolled, click here.