Prisoners regain right to vote

By Regan Paranihi

The government has passed the third and final reading of the Electoral (Registration of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill which now allows prisoners serving a maximum prison sentence of three years or less the right to vote.

Since 2010 there has been a blanket ban on all prisoners voting rights but, with this new bill, nearly 20,000 prisoners will get to have their say in this year's general election.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis says: "It's right that they should be able to vote for who they want to be in government when they are released from prison."

Justice Minister Andrew Little's decision to pursue this bill was supported by both the Green Party and New Zealand First.

"That's [prisoners serving three years] is what we proposed for and, once we got to that stage, that's what all the parties in the government agreed on," Davis says.

However, the National Party claims the bill is inconsistent with the Greens' request to allow all prisoners the right to register to vote, and despite National MPs voting for the change,  Dr Nick Smith dismisses it as a move from the coalition government to get more votes.

In a release Dr Smith, the National spokesman for electoral law said, "This new prisoner voting law is a shambles with different clauses contradicting each other. The mess has been caused by the mad rush to pass it under urgency before the 2020 general election, combined with dysfunctional relationships between government parties."

'Arbitrary moral judgments'

But Little says National needs to look at its voting policies first before complaining about the new voting laws.

"They voted not to extend the right to all prisoners, then they voted to require the Department of Corrections to notify every prisoner that they have the right to vote, then they voted to abolish the power of the Electoral Commission to remove disqualified voters from the roll. Their vote was all over the place. If you want to find a shambles, look at the National Party voting strategy."

On Wednesday the Green Party proposed two changes to the bill: One was to allow all prisoners the right to register to vote, which was successful and the second was to allow all prisoners the right to vote, which failed.

"We want our democracy to work for everyone," says Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman. "We don't want basic human rights to be subject to arbitrary moral judgments and I think New Zealand is a proud country of universal suffrage."

Davis says this is ultimately a win for those who are now able to vote again.

"It benefits those people who are in prison and their families. If they are released, they can vote for who they want in government when they are released."

Māori make up half of the incarceration population in our prisons and, with the change to this bill, we might see a rise in more Māori voters come election time."