One of
the government’s proposed changes to the electoral system that looks
likely to make it through the Senate is the end of voting rights for
prisoners – despite the adverse opinion from the European Court of Human Rights, reported in Crikey on Friday.

The
current rule is that prisoners serving sentences of less than three
years are entitled to vote; this was reduced from five years prior to
the last election, with virtually no public debate. The opposition
seems unlikely to make a fuss about it this time either – not just
because Kim Beazley is disinclined to make a fuss about too much, but
also because the rights of convicted criminals are never an electorally
popular cause.

No-one disputes that the move will favour the
Coalition. Mobile voting booths at prisons typically record large
majorities for the ALP; Bob Brown puts this down to the fact that
“white collar crime is much harder to prosecute.” But the numbers
voting at such booths are so small that it’s not clear how much effect
the change will have.

One might expect that the prisoner vote
would be concentrated in a few electorates, where the major prisons
are, but this is not the case. As the AEC website
explains, you don’t change your enrolment if you go to jail; provided
you are already enrolled, you stay on the roll for your former address
(although, like those who travel for extended periods, you should
notify the commission to make sure you don’t get purged if the roll is
checked).

Even those who turn 18 while in prison don’t enrol for
the address of the prison: they should enrol at their former address,
or the address of their next of kin, or the place where they are born,
or, failing all these, “where you have the closest connection.” This
means that it is impossible to say where most prisoners are enrolled,
or indeed how many of them there are. So although Labor will lose out,
its loss will be thinly spread; the only exception may be seats like
Lingiari and Kalgoorlie with large Aboriginal populations, which we
know have disproportionately high rates of imprisonment.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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