Prisoner voting rights bill passes in Parliament

A bill reinstating voting rights to some prisoners has passed in Parliament tonight. 

Prisoners serving sentences of less than three years are set to vote at this election, after Parliament partially removed a blanket ban on prisoner voting rights. 

All prisoners were banned from voting in 2010, prior to then prisoners with sentences of three years or less could vote. 

Today, Parliament voted with Labour, the Green Party and NZ First in favour, while National, ACT and Jami Lee Ross voted against allowing prisoners serving sentences of three years or less to vote.

It did not come without controversy, however.

Earlier today, the Green Party revealed it proposed to extend voting eligibility to all prisoners, rather than those with shorter sentences. 

Golriz Ghahraman said the change in its current form "still means that a large number of people we hold in our prisons don’t have the basic human right of casting a vote during election, which our Supreme Court agrees is a serious breach". 

As indicated earlier this was voted down by Labour and NZ First.  However, National voted along with the Greens for a section which would see all prisoners advised they can vote. 

Justice Minister Andrew Little called the move "mindless politics". 

He said the Green Party's proposed change had two different parts - “The one that extended the right to vote to all prisoners was voted down. The other one taking away the Electoral Commission’s power to remove disqualified voters from enrolling was inexplicably supported by the National Party. 

"We will be correcting this in the House next week.”

National MP Nick Smith attempted to move the bill back to the select committee stage, saying it was now "unworkable".

"This is bad, botched law. This is bad process. This is bad principles. This is nothing other than the Labour Party stitching up a cheat electoral law change that they think will give them a few more votes," he said. 

ACT leader David Seymour said it was the biggest "legislative screw up in the last four weeks".

National's Chris Penk spoke of inconsistency between people who were able to vote while serving sentences of less than three years, and those serving longer sentences but with less than three years left. 

NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft said the law changed would "restore some dignity, it will restore some humanity, and it will uphold the ability for reintegration to society, engagement back into society, for those who are in prison with less than three years". 

Labour's Meka Whaitiri called it a "real sweet, simple, and sensible piece of legislation that is fair and that is based on retaining the human rights of prisoners that are sentenced and also ensuring that we are addressing the disproportionate impact on Māori prisoners". 

Once the change becomes law, about 1900 prisoners would be able to vote at the 2020 election. 

A 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton Poll found last October a slim majority of New Zealanders believed  some prisoners should be allowed to vote .

A High Court ruling found National's 2010 amendment to the Electoral Act, disenfranchising prisoners, did breach the Bill of Rights. This was  appealed to the Supreme Court.

In November 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's finding the blanket ban was inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.