It was sadly predictable that National's justice spokesman, Mark Mitchell, should react negatively to the Greens' proposal this week to give prison inmates the right to vote.

True to form, Mitchell opposed the idea - part of a "strengthening democracy" members' bill from Green MP Golriz Ghahraman - saying losing the right to vote was part of the punishment for criminals.

With 47 years as a journalist, I have spent a fair few hours in courtrooms and I have never yet heard a judge say: "I sentence you to X years in prison and I hereby remove you from the electoral roll and take away your right to be part of the democratic process."

No, losing the right to vote is not part of our sentencing protocols. It is a political decision, not a judicial one.


Forget the outcry from Maori that this state-sanctioned disenfranchisement is a "racist law". The removal of suffrage is an affront to every prisoner, regardless of ethnicity.

Incarcerating people in jail is to keep the public safe and is also society's way of warning potential offenders of the consequences of their criminality. It is a deterrent.

But does taking away a person's right to vote in any way deter crime? Does the violent thug pause for a moment and think: "OMG - if I'm caught I won't get a say at the next general election"? I'd suggest not.

So the 2010 law passed by the then National government taking away voting rights from all prisoners (prior to that it was only those serving three years or more who were disenfranchised) was not deterring crime nor was it making society safer. It can only be seen as a punishment.

There is no upside with this law, and there is a potential downside.

Removing a person's right to vote is a step toward removing them from ordered, democratic society. It says they can't take part ... perhaps it suggests they don't belong.

But isn't one of the fundamental aims of prison to rehabilitate offenders - to teach them the value of civilised society, that they do belong?

The 2010 law was a sop to tough-on-crime knee-jerkery, and it has been judged by the highest court in the land, the New Zealand Supreme Court, as "inconsistent" with the country's Bill of Rights.


The right to vote is a foundation of any democratic nation, and the Government should get behind the Greens' initiative.