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Housekeeping #5, Locked Out: Do prisoners have the right to vote?

Read Thursday, 30 Jun 2016

In the fifth and final episode of Housekeeping – the Wheeler Centre’s five-part mini-series of short podcast features on Australian democracy – Jarni Blakkarly looks at the confusing status of prisoners’ voting rights in Australia.

Illustration: Jon Tjhia
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Back in 2007, Ken was really keen to vote in the Australian federal election. Ken was a swinging voter. But after 11 years of John Howard’s coalition government, he was excited to see change, and he wanted to see what the opposition could do in power.

The problem was, Ken couldn’t just go down to the local primary school on Election Day, because he was in prison. So instead, he told the guards that he was on the electoral roll and wanted to arrange a postal vote. It wasn’t anywhere near as easy as you’d think.

‘Voting is a whole bunch of new paperwork that they’re going to have to do,’ Ken says. ‘And some of [the prison staff] don’t really think you should be able to vote anyway, you know what I mean?

Ken believes prison staff didn’t take his request, or his right to vote seriously.

‘They’ll do everything to talk you off, like tell you to come back when the next guy is on the next shift … I was pretty frustrated about that one.’

Ken didn’t push the issue, though, because he didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.

‘I was lucky to be in that pod, and I was lucky to have a job, so I didn’t push the envelope because I didn’t want to move out of there. So I just moved on, I didn’t worry about chasing it up.’

There’s one group of Australian citizens in this country that we, as a society, have denied the right to vote.

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

There’s one group of Australian citizens in this country that we, as a society, have denied the right to vote.

Way back, right after Australia’s federation in 1901, laws were introduced to ensure that those convicted to one year or more in prison would not be allowed to vote. In 1983, that threshold went up to five years. However in 1989, Bob Hawke’s Labor government set about trying to change that, attempting to allow all prisoners the vote. But Hawke’s effort was defeated in the Senate.

The issue of prisoner voting rights was also a pet project of John Howard’s, but in a different way. As opposition leader, he pushed the ALP to abandon its support of prisoners’ right to vote. And in 1999, while he was Australia’s Prime Minister, Howard wanted to make it illegal for any prisoner to vote regardless of the length of their sentence.

That effort failed, but as a compromise, the Labor opposition agreed to lower the no-vote threshold from five years to three. Years later, though, Howard finally got his way. In 2006, all prisoners lost the right to vote.

But one woman had other ideas. Vickie Roach, who was serving a prison sentence at the time, decided to take Howard on. A Yuin woman from the south coast of New South Wales, Vickie is a member of the Stolen Generation, who was taken from her mother at the age of two. She’d been in and out of prison for much of her adult life, mostly short stints for drug offences and petty crime. In 2004, she was sentenced to five years in prison, after a police pursuit in which another driver was badly injured.

It was the longest jail term she’d served, and it was during this period that Vickie became active in advocating for prison rights. This coincided with John Howard’s term as Prime Minister.

‘In 2006, that was his final move, to ban the lot, to ban the lot of us voting,’ Vickie says. ‘It just went further to dehumanise us, you know, “you’re not part of this society, we don’t want to hear about you voting. Your opinion, what you value, what is important to you is not important to us.”’

Vickie decided to mount a legal challenge to Howard’s law. In the case of Roach vs Electoral Commissioner, the High Court ruled Howard’s voting law amendments unconstitutional. But even after she won the case, some voting restrictions for prisoners remained in place. The courts ruled that the previous law – the three-year rule – was still valid. And we reverted to the old set of restrictions. This meant that Vickie couldn’t herself vote in the next election, even if other prisoners could.

‘I didn’t get to vote in that election, to vote John Howard out, because I was serving over three years. Even though we won, I didn’t receive any benefit from it.’

Vickie says that disregard for prisoners’ rights isn’t limited to any one side of politics. And of course, as statistics make very clear, Indigenous people like Vickie are vastly overrepresented in prison.

‘Any government, it doesn’t matter which side of the coin they are on, always use a law and order platform,’ Vickie says. ‘And it’s always about getting tough on crime, and increasing the penalties – making prisons harder and tougher.

In our daily lives on the outside, many of us don’t really think about the rights of prisoners. There’s a feeling that if they’ve done something wrong, that’s simply the price they pay. But the reasons people go to prison aren’t always so simple.

Remember how Vickie ended up with her five year jail term, after a police chase? She was driving the getaway car for her abusive boyfriend, who’d just committed a robbery. She tried to pull over. And during her trial, police said they saw him hit her across the head, and force her to keep driving. Even so, domestic violence was not taken into account at Vickie’s sentencing.

Prisoners like Vickie might not be faultless, but they are citizens. And really, how are prisons meant to engage and reform offenders if the law tells them they’re not considered part of society – or that their opinions don’t count?

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

A funny thing about voting in prison, though, is that out of those with sentences less than three years – who have the legal right to vote – very, very few, actually do.

The former prisoners, and the prisoner advocates I spoke with, told me that corrections workers don’t always make it easy to request ballots. Many prisoners aren’t enrolled to vote, may have low levels of education, and aren’t really encouraged to make sure they’re registered. In that sense, for many eligible prisoners with no practical way to vote, their rights are just words on paper.

Prisoners’ rights activist Brett Collins is the coordinator of the advocacy group Justice Action. He surveyed dozens of people across five prisons in New South Wales in May this year, in the lead-up to our federal election. He reported that of all the prisoners he’d spoken to, not one had received information on how to enrol.

For many eligible prisoners with no practical way to vote, their rights are just words on paper.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is always broadcasting its message of making sure every Australian is enrolled. So, what gives? If ever there was a captive audience for that message, this is it. Ken says the AEC, or prison authorities, need to make more of an effort.

We’ve got courses to teach us not to use drugs, and we’ve got courses on anger management, things like this, education courses,’ he points out. ‘They should run something, not aimed at any political side, but just how to enroll yourself to vote.’

I’ve made several unsuccessful attempts throughout this series to contact the AEC interview. On the topic of prisoners’ voting rights, they declined yet again. At this point, I’d honestly become a bit frustrated, so instead of being polite and friendly, I tried another journalistic tactic: I wrote sharply-worded questions and set a deadline for a response. Some of my questions included:

Was the Commission aware of alleged incidents where prisoners were being discouraged from voting by some prison staff?

Was the Commission or the prison responsible for giving inmates voting information?

Why were so few prisoners enrolled and were they doing anything to increase participation?

I never heard back.

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

While in prison, Ken says he had loads of time to watch the news on TV, so he was very well informed on all the parties policies.

‘I like to stay in touch and listen to both sides. I’m probably an undecided voter, and probably attracted to maybe sometimes an independent or something. But also, like everyone else, you’re listening for who is going to suit your interests best.

You might assume that Ken decides his vote on which party performs best on prisoners’ rights. Or you might guess that he’s motivated by policies on drug crime or sentencing. But, like most voters, his motivations aren’t obvious.

On top of being caught in the system a bit with the revolving door, I’m disabled as well,’ Ken explains. ‘So that’s a big issue at this election, the cost of disability pensions. I have an amputation of part of my leg. So things like that worry me.

He adds: ‘I think about the parties that are going to be more sympathetic to my life, or to what effects me, I suppose. But then again, I know you can’t just print money out of thin air, and holes in budgets worry me as well. So I know political parties like to promise things, but they can’t always deliver everything.’

Now that he’s out of prison, Ken keeps informed by listening to the radio.

I listen to the radio, I listen a bit to RN, ABC, and then to balance it out I’ll sometimes listen to a bit of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley and hear them have a go,’ he laughs.

So, is he looking forward to heading down to his local primary school this election to cast his vote? 

‘Yep,’ Ken says. ‘Because I’m pretty sure it’s going to be, it sounds like it could be a close election. Or there could be a chance of change of government maybe.’

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Throughout this mini-series, I’ve tried to unpack some of the most commonplace assumptions about how our democracy functions in Australia.

I asked after the meaning behind the election day sausage sizzle and explored the question of whether we should force people to vote. I’ve also looked at integrity, through both voter identity and the process of counting votes.

I came to these questions with a lot of my own ideas. I follow politics closely, and I thought I had a strong idea of how our democracy works.

But if there’s one of my assumptions that’s been wildly off the mark, it’s the belief that Australia is an entirely mature democracy. It seems petty that we withdraw the right to vote from some people, as a punishment for not adhering to society’s rules.

We have a pretty good system, and much better than many places around the world, but there are these niggles, these creases that need to be ironed out. And because our system works relatively well for most people, most of the time, we become complacent and don’t have discussions about its flaws.

Our political system is stable, but it isn’t static. It’s always changing and evolving.

And there is always room for improvement. 

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