Because New Zealand has an unwritten, largely informal constitution, it can change in quite major ways without generating much fanfare. One such development took place last Friday with the delivery of the High Court’s judgment in Taylor v Attorney-General. This case involved a challenge by five prisoners to a 2010 law that prevents all sentenced prisoners from voting. (Before 2010, only prisoners sentenced to three or more years in jail were stopped from doing so.) After hearing this challenge, Justice Heath concluded that the 2010 law limits prisoners’ right to vote as guaranteed under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and does so in a way that cannot be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” That finding was no real surprise; the Attorney-General already had warned Parliament about the problem before the law was passed.
After all, the effect of the law is to say that a person sentenced to prison cannot vote while someone sentenced to home detention for committing the exact same crime can do so.
Or a person sentenced to five years in prison the week after an election is held will in practice be able to vote at the next one when released on parole, but a person sentenced to a month’s imprisonment the week before that election will not. And so on.
Even if you think that some group of criminal offenders ought to lose their right to vote because of their manifest disrespect for societal norms, you still must admit that a law that takes away some people’s voting rights on a more-or-less arbitrary basis is not a good idea. Which is why virtually everyone who has looked seriously at this law thinks it is fatally flawed.