Inmate voting ban 'undemocratic'

04:58, Jun 30 2010

A bill to ban prison inmates from voting in general elections is unnecessary, unhealthy and undemocratic, a select committee was told today.

In a submission to the law and order committee, the New Zealand Law Society said the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill was a violation of the Bill of Rights and "completely out of line" with international law.

Under current law, prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more are ineligible to vote, but the member's bill - drafted by National MP Paul Quinn - would remove the right of anyone in prison on election day to cast their ballot.

Society spokeswoman Frances Joychild told the committee that removal was punishment on top of punishment and would exclude prisoners from having a say on the government under which they lived.

"It is critical for the function of our democracy that we not interfere with the right to vote," she said.

"Our fundamental concern is about the rationality and proportionality."

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Ms Joychild said the bill was disproportionate because someone in prison for one day would be treated the same as someone in prison for life.

In a written submission, society president Jonathan Temm described the legislation as "retrograde".

"The Law Society believes that the current law keeps the correct balance between maintenance of a free and democratic society, the right to vote for all New Zealand citizens and the necessary removal of certain rights from prisoners," he said.

"The bill is irrational, discriminatory and unfair. While some people who have been convicted of an offence will not be able to vote because they received a custodial sentence, others who were convicted of the same offence will be able to vote if they received a non-custodial sentence."

Mr Temm said the bill unnecessarily overrode the recommendations of the 1986 Royal Commission on the electoral system, on which the current law was based.

Mr Quinn today said while the Royal Commission found prisoners should be allowed to vote because some were sentenced to prison for misdemeanour crimes, it also found that "in some point in time" that right may need to be revoked.

"The argument of the Royal Commission was flawed. In this day and age people only go to prison for serious crime," he said.

"We don't just put them in there for a holiday."

Mr Quinn said two-thirds of inmates have over 10 convictions before going to prison for the first time.

"They get plenty of warning," he said.

Electoral enrolment centre spokesman Murray Wicks told the committee he did not have a view on the bill but would like to see some operational changes, including the way the enrolment office was notified of a prisoner's sentence.

NZPA