Imprisoned and Disenfranchised
The evening of Monday 6th May saw a great turnout for EJP On Campus’ first event, The Symposium on Prisoners’ Rights to Vote.
The discussion centered on the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010, which amended the Electoral Act 1993 to the effect that there is a blanket disenfranchisement of any person imprisoned, including on remand or in police custody, at the time of an election. Prior to this amendment, prisoner disenfranchisement only applied to people who had been given a sentence of imprisonment for 3 years or more.
Opening the Event
After a brief welcome by Rosie Judd, one of the On Campus Managers, volunteer Phoebe Mason provided a summary of the On Campus Symposium paper. The paper covered: the theoretical basis of prisoner disenfranchisement, jurisdictional overviews of New Zealand, Australia and Canada, as well as summaries of some notable European Court of Human Rights cases and a discussion on the possibility of an Australasian/Pacific Human Rights Mechanism. The volunteers that worked on the symposium paper include Stephanie Chan, Jonathan Folwell, Sarah Graham, Rosie Judd, Alex Mackenzie, Phoebe Mason, Anjori Mitra, Cornelia Mu, Natalie Stagg and Helen Thompson. The paper has received some very positive feedback from the Rt. Hon E.W. (Ted) Thomas (Patron of EJP) and The Human Rights Lawyers’ Association.
Alex Mackenzie, a EJP volunteer, chaired the event. The first speaker was David Farrar from Kiwiblog. Aside from the Bill’s creator, David was the only person who submitted to Parliament in favor of the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010. David was able to provide a thought provoking perspective on why he supported this legislative change. He pointed out the arbitrariness of the previous 3 years’ imprisonment requirement, and felt that those who break the social contract of democracy ought to lose the democratic privilege of voting. He also argued that voting is a relatively small right to lose in comparison to the other rights lost by people when they are imprisoned, and that in New Zealand, the number of prisoners who lost the vote upon the law change would have no practical impact on elections.
The next speaker was Diane White from JustSpeak, who opposed all prisoner disenfranchisement. Diane cited the need to protect and recognise vulnerable groups, and to humanise prisoners, understanding their disadvantaged backgrounds and that many had also been victims of crime. She reminded us that prisoners who vote would not be voting merely as prisoners, but also as parents, representatives of ethnic and religious groups, members of various communities and practitioners of various professions. She also argued that allowing prisoners to vote allowed prisoners to feel a sense of civic engagement and could have rehabilitative effect. Diane finally pointed out the procedural issues involved in the Bill’s passage, such as Parliament’s failure to take into account the overwhelming opposition to the bill and the Attorney-General’s finding that prisoner disenfranchisement is an unjustified limitation on human rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990.
The final speaker was Kris Gledhill, lecturer at the University of Auckland Faculty of Law and Director of the New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice. He has had an extensive practising and academic background in legal issues concerning human rights. He supported Diane’s position against all prisoner disenfranchisement, on the basis that it undermined the inherent equal value of all people and the fundamental status of the right. He also provided a brief outline of the position of various other countries in terms of prisoner voting rights, demonstrating that New Zealand has been the only country to move towards greater prisoner disenfranchisement. Kris also put forward the alternative possibility of prisoner’s voting rights being determined by judges on a case-by-case basis, allowing for fairer outcomes, rather than blanket bans.
The evening was rounded off by some lively discussion between the speakers and members of the audience, followed by drinks and nibbles.