Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Bill Submission


About the Submitter

  1. This submission is made by David Farrar in a personal capacity. I would like to appear before the Committee to speak to my submission.
  2. I have a long standing interest in the Electoral Act and have written extensively on it.

    Executive Summary

  3. I support the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Bill as it provides for a more logical threshold, in disqualifying convicted criminals from voting.

    Overseas exceptions to suffrage

  4. Amongst the democratic countries, there is no clear policy or threshold at which those convicted of crimes lose or do not lose their right to vote.
  5. Some counties have no disqualification at all. Even the worst serial killers and gang rapists are allowed to vote from prison, despite serving a life sentence.
  6. Other countries (or states within countries) have laws which prohibit not only current prisoners from voting, but maintains a ban on voting, even after they have been released
  7. Some countries, like Australia and currently New Zealand, have a ban which only applies for sentences of three years or more.
  8. Countries which have a total ban on prisoners voting are the United Kingdom, Ireland (de facto), Luxembourg, Estonia, Romania, Russia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Also 48 of the 50 states of the United States (covering 99.4% of the population) ban prisoners from voting.

    Where should the line be drawn?

  9. I do not believe there is any clearly right answer to where the threshold should be. Arguments can be made for any number of scenarios, which range along a continuum.
  10. Below I have listed, in approximate order of severity, some of the options open to a country in terms of restrictions on criminals voting.
    1. No restrictions at all.
    2. Those serving a life sentence can not vote
    3. Those sentenced three or more times to prison lose the right to vote while in prison (three strikes and no vote)
    4. Those sentenced to x years or more lose right to vote while in prison (status quo of three years)
    5. Those sentenced to prison can not vote while in prison (proposal of Bill)
    6. Those sentenced to any form of custody (home detention, periodic detention) can not vote while sentence is underway
    7. Those sentenced to prison can not vote while on prison or on parole
    8. Those sentenced to prison can not vote while in prison and for x years after release
    9. Those sentenced to prison are permanently disqualified from voting
    10. Those convicted of any crime can not vote for x years after sentencing
    11. Those convicted of any crime are permanently disqualified from voting
  11. Starting at the least restrictive end of the scale, I believe having no restriction at all is highly undesirable. The like of Graeme Burton and William Bell have forfeited their right to vote, just as they forfeited their freedom of movement.
  12. A case could be made that only those with life sentences be ineligible to vote, on the basis they will never re-enter society. However with parole a life sentence is not for life. This undermines the logic of restricting it to life sentences only.
  13. The status quo is that only those sentenced to three or more years lose eligibility to vote. The problem I have with the status quo is that three years is very arbitrary. If you get sentenced for 2 years and 11 months you retain your vote, and one month more and you lose it.
  14. The status quo also has the problem of defending why three years is the right dividing line. Why not four years? Why not seven years? Why not one year?
  15. This then brings us to the proposal in the bill. For the ban to apply to any criminal in prison. I believe this to be less arbitrary and a superior dividing line.
  16. A Judge does not sentence someone to prison lightly. They will in fact go out of their way to have prison as a last resort. Many criminals have dozens or scores of convictions before they actually get a prison term. Prison is regarded as reserved for either the more serious offences or repeat offenders.
  17. Hence having voting rights disappear upon prison sentence strikes me as a more logical threshold. It is the threshold at which a Judge says that someone’s offending against society is so bad, that we have no choice but to remove their liberty and lock them in a cell.
  18. I also believe that the right to vote is part of a person’s liberty, and it is quite consistent to lose that right upon going to prison – just as you lose the right to free speech, to freedom of movement, to freedom of what you watch, to freedom of sex, to freedom of meal choice etc.
  19. On a practical note, it also means that it is easy to administer – no polling facilities or special vote facilities are made available in prison. No needing to work out which prisoners can or can not vote.
  20. As I said earlier, there is no clearly right place to draw the line. Arguments can be made for or against most of the options I have outlined above. However I believe the preferred option is to link it to imprisonment, as this bill does.

In summary I urge the Justice and Electoral Committee to recommend the Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Bill be passed.

David Farrar

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