Prisoner voting in New Zealand

Dr James Mehigan1

1University Of Canterbury

The eligibility of prisoners to vote in New Zealand has changed regularly since the country held its first elections in the mid-Nineteenth Century. At the present time, any prisoner serving a sentence shorter than three years can vote (if they meet the regular criteria around age, citizenship and residence etc). The legislative intent of this seemingly arbitrary cut-off is that New Zealand has 3 year electoral cycles and so such prisoners will be released before the next election and should have a say in how the society into which they will return should be governed.

The current position came into force just before the November 2020 general election and this paper will present initial findings from research into how successful the changes were in practice. The paper also draws together the political and legal context of these legislative provisions and asks if that arbitrary cut-off is justified. It will draw on experiences in other countries, including the UK, Ireland and Israel to discuss the philosophical question of whether disenfranchising prisoners serving more than three years breaches the principle that prisoners are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.


James is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Canterbury where he teaches criminal law and criminology. He was formerly a lecturer in criminology at the Open University in the UK and a barrister specialising in criminal and human rights law at Garden Court Chambers in London. He is a New Zealand representative on the Committee of Management of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Criminology.


Dec 09 2021