BY AZARIA HOWELL
In 2010 in New Zealand, a law passed that should’ve never even been drafted. It was the law forbidding inmates to vote if they were in prison on election day. What has been called “inconsistent with the Bill of Rights” by the High Court is still an enforced law to this day, and in my opinion, not rightly so. Prisoners should have the right (like any other person) to vote, speak, and be heard. Despite being the first country to give women the right to vote, it seems that New Zealand is on the wrong side of history in terms of giving our inmates any political power. It is time we speak up for those who can’t, prisoners in this country.
The debate has once again been sparked by a petition calling for the laws to be changed, as well as a policy announcement from the Greens earlier last week. The right to vote is given to all citizens and residents over the age of 18 under the electoral act, however, this vote is still restricted for people in prison on the day of an election. The law which passed over seven years ago restricting the voting rights of inmates has been under fire from prominent legal experts, who have spent years in the criminal justice system. According to the attorney-general at the time of the law change, it should be the rights of every eligible prisoner to be able to vote. The law “appears to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights act,” allegedly.
And if the thoughts of the former attorney-general aren’t enough, just listen to Dr. Katie Bruce, the director of JustSpeak (an organization which helps to get the youth voice heard in the criminal justice system). Bruce believes that excluding prisoners from the voting process is undemocratic and that they deserve a voice. She argues a very strong point that this country is based around a form of representative democracy, yet we are missing out on thousands of voices. JustSpeak believe that the law restricting prisoners the rights to vote is unjust, and “unlawful.”
Historically speaking, reducing inequality has been a major focus of government policy and the creation of a fairer society. For example, in the 1800s, only a select few could vote, until people pointed out the unfairness in that policy. New Zealand has a history of standing up for minorities and should uphold the values of this in modern day society with prisoners. Being the first country to allow women the right to vote, decriminalising homosexuality at a time when it was vastly controversial, and embracing the culture of Tangata Whenua have been core principles and defining moments for our country. Yet these political methods of destroying inequality have not reached out to prisoners thus far, despite being a focus of governmental policy throughout history. If and when these prisoners do become released, they will likely not be informed on the process of voting, and would therefore be less likely to have their say even when they are reintegrated back into society. As we all know, New Zealand is a representative democracy. However, we cannot truly be the representative democracy we call ourselves if we are not allocating the voices of everyone, including those who are a part of our justice system. Purposely missing out on the voices of thousands shouldn’t be called democracy. In my opinion, we should be seeking out the voices of these prisoners as it is our best bet on how to truly combat crime in this country. To elaborate, prisoners commit crimes for a reason, whether it is due to poverty, cultural misunderstandings, abuse, or other circumstances, there really is only one way to find out, and that’s to listen to the voices of these people. If then, we do the best we can to mitigate factors which cause prisoners to commit crimes, we can truly advocate for a society with less crime and violence. Prisoners are eager to have their voices heard and we need to cater to this in our legal system. Prisoners deserve a voice.
In summary, the status quo of restricting the voting rights of prisoners is undemocratic, unjust, and unfair and needs to change. Prisoners also have reasons why they have committed crimes; it would greatly benefit justice policy if the government knew why so many people are in prison. It’s time to put the legislation which is “inconsistent with the Bill of Rights” to rest once and for all and let prisoners who come from behind bars take their place in front of the ballot box. New Zealand can create history by allowing prisoners a right to vote, but more importantly, this would create a fairer society with equity at the forefront of decision making. To ensure we have a representative democracy, prisoners deserve a voice. To make sure that fewer crimes are committed in New Zealand, prisoners deserve a voice. To fully integrate inmates as part of society, prisoners need a voice. That voice should be in the form of a vote.
Prisoners deserve a vote, knowing a vote leads to a voice, and a voice leads to an inclusive society. An inclusive society is what we are striving for as a nation. It is a step in the right direction for our country to allow prisoners to vote. Let’s take that step.
AZARIA HOWELL is a huge politics nerd living in Christchurch. Expect lots of
new political articles on Tearaway from her! She also loves snowboarding,
Beagles, and wearing clunky boots. @makeazariagreatagain
Tearaway is all about giving young people a platform to express themselves, from all points of view; we encourage diversity of opinions, provided they are expressed with respect for those who differ. The opinions expressed may or may not be those of the Tearaway editorial team and Management.
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