Last week, the UK went to the polls, to elect local Councillors, Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners, Welsh Assembly Members and Members of the Scottish Parliament. I have been following the proceedings from a distance (having arranged a proxy to vote on my behalf before leaving for Ghana), and have begun to see some of the weaknesses in our electoral process.

First of all, turnout continues to be a challenge – even for the heavily publicised race for the London Mayoralty, turnout was below 50% – but that is only the start of our problems. Huge swathes of the population are systematically prevented from voting, in ways that lead me to question whether we can really claim to have universal suffrage at all.

Take convicts. At present, the UK has a blanket ban on voting for anyone currently serving a prison sentence. While it can be argued that, by breaking the law, criminals remove themselves from legitimate society and thus lose the vote, this is not what international Human Rights law says. Voting is a fundamental, inalienable right, as laid out in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions… To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors”.

So, only reasonable restrictions can be applied to universal and equal suffrage. You might say that a ban on prisoners voting is not ‘unreasonable’, but the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly found that the UK’s blanket ban is illegal (a decision the UK has simply ignored for the last decade), as it is indiscriminate and does not reflect the crimes committed. Further, prisoners may have broken the ‘social contract’, but must still live within our society, in prisons we maintain. They should be able to have a say in what kind of life they are given, like anyone else. If they are disenfranchised, there is no political incentive to treat them fairly.

This is only one failure of the system, however. Something I have failed to notice before (thank you to those who brought this to my attention) is that, for some people, the mechanic of physically accessing a polling station can in effect bar them from exercising their fundamental rights. I believe that part of the problem is that, at present, we simply do not have enough accessible halls to set up polling stations in. Obviously that situation is slowly improving as school halls get renovated, new community centres built and so on, but in the mean time, poll clerks must be empowered to take necessary steps to facilitate voting at the local polling station, whether that be having an additional ballot box which can be taken outside as necessary, or some other method of ensuring everyone can physically vote. Apparently at present there is a number to call to find out if your polling station is accessible. It isn’t clear what happens if it is not accessible – whether you are directed to an alternative station (which may be hard to get to), or steps are taken at your station, or you are simply unable to vote – but this need to call in advance can be problematic too (problems which I confess had not even occurred to me, until they were pointed out). The aim is to mitigate the failures of the build environment, but it would be less discriminatory to make such preparations universally across all polling stations. And I grant that anyone can apply for a postal vote, but that can be a slow process, and voting in person should be an option to anyone – if simply to ensure voters have equal time to make up their minds.

This raises another problem. Under UK law, nobody otherwise entitle to vote can be prevented from voting due to mental capacity. Now it is clearly right that people with mental illnesses or disabilities are able to vote, but this does raise a problem with regards to informed choice, because the vote they cast must also be their own, and must not be forced on them by another person. If, therefore, someone with limited mental capacity casts a vote, they may unwittingly be committing electoral fraud. I don’t know how we address this. I can think of no way to determine whether someone is able to make an informed choice which is not hugely inappropriate, but it is certainly a problem (albeit not a major one – electoral fraud is hardly a big issue in the UK). More importantly, we need to ensure that people who might find it hard to make an informed choice are not excluded from doing so. Information must be available in clear and simple formats, to ensure that participation is truly open to everyone.

This leads me to another question. At present, despite often being better informed, despite contributing to society, paying taxes, getting married and above all being affected by politics, under 18s are not able to vote. I cannot find any good reason for this. It seems to be accepted just because that is how it is. On what basis are they disenfranchised? They are part of society, our government policies will impact on their lives. If they are as able to make an informed choice as anyone else, why can they not do so?

Again, it can be all but impossible to vote if you are in temporary accommodation (such as a refuge for victims of domestic abuse), or are homeless. These are groups who need the protection of the state more than most people, but are unable to vote for the policies which would benefit them because of the failings of state bureaucracy.

Then of course there are the approximately 800,000 people who have fallen off the electoral register because of the change to individual voter registration. Students and people in short term accommodation have been particularly hard hit by this change, which in effect prevents people from voting even if they want to. This is geographically and thus socio-economically unbalanced – the total decline is around 1.8%, but some urban areas have fallen by more than 10%.

Conversely, while all these voters, who may be well informed, and want to be involved in the political process, are prevented from doing so, people are allowed to vote under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is surely a perversion of what should be a serious and weighty decision for each member of a democracy. Not that I am espousing compulsory drugs tests, but I think we may have lost our collective sense that voting matters, a cetury after women finally secured the right to vote.

These situations all pose problems to us. I don’t have a response to all of them, but I am sure these problems need addressing, before we lose sight of the importance of democracy altogether. In fact, I am inclined to believe that voting ought to be a legal obligation (albeit with a “none of the above” option), and I am certain that more must be done to allow everyone, regardless of their situation, to have an informed say in how our country is run. Whilst electronic voting has a dubious track record, one potential option would be to allow anyone to vote anywhere, using a system which tracks people based on National Insurance numbers. We could thus allow people to vote regardless of where they live, ensure that more people can vote at a convenient polling station, reduce the need for postal ballots, and allow more people to vote at the limited number of accessible polling stations. There are problems to overcome in regards to maintaining a constituency link – but I am sure this can be over come without too much trouble. All in all, it would help address many of the problems our voting system faces, and that can only be a good thing.


7 thoughts on “Universal Suffrage?

  1. If not 18 years of age, what would you choose? Whatever age is chosen it is an arbitrary cut-off… This at least is linked to various other ‘coming of age’ transitions – though I grant you that 16 could also claim this.
    Also, while students may have fallen off the register, it is their own fault if they have. Yes, they would need to re-register but there is nothing preventing them from doing so if they wish to. It is pure apathy that prevents them.
    While I agree with you that prisoners should get the vote (especially remand prisoners, who are not even convicted of a crime!) In point of fact Strasburg has regrettably agreed that the UK is within its rights to take their current stand.


  2. There should be no cut off but competence -age is not an appropriate measure. That being said, now we have fixed term parliaments, a case could be made for anyone who will turn 18 (and thus leave compulsory education) before the next election being allowed to vote in the coming one. E.g. in 2020 anyone turning 18 before the first Thursday of May 2025.

    Re: your second point. Yes apathy is a factor but only a small one. Most students (in university accommodation) will never have had to register to vote and wont receive a form telling them to update details of the property’s residents. If they dont know they need to register individually, it is hardly surprising that they don’t do so.

    As for your last point I dont know which ruling you refer to. The European Court of Human Rights (based in Straßburg) has repeatedly found the UK’s blanket ban to be in breach of Art. 3 ECHR as it is indiscriminate (most recently in Feb 2015). See and numerous news articles.
    The European Court of Justice (based in Luxemburg) has found, in October 2015, that a French ban on a prisoner serving a life sentence can stand as it is proportionate to the crime committed (comes into force on sentences over 5years), however this if anything further undermines the UK’s blanket ban for the same reason. See


  3. I agree that competence should be the only measure required, but who is to judge the competence? It is not something that can be set down in legislation and is thus not an appropriate yard-stick for this. Unfortunately, the only one which is practical is age, and everyone is affected by which government we have, from toddlers up.

    Before every election there is a campaign to get people to register to vote. If students don’t know they have to do so it is willful ignorance.They are supposed to be intelligent if they are at university (or any other tertiary education)! And I can’t believe that the Student’s Unions don’t run campaigns as well – they certainly did when I was at uni…

    It seems I was mislead by something I heard on the radio the other day about prisoner votes – it was in the Referendum debates, and a pro-Europe politician (I’m sure) said that one of the European courts had come round to that view. Either I misheard him (which I don’t think is the case) or he was getting confused (deliberately?) with the ECJ ruling you referred to!


    1. The overarching problem seems to be that campaigns to get people to vote are not effective. Burundi’s election last year, which was boycotted by the opposition, still had a higher turnout than ours! Clearly, across the whole country more needs to be done to convince people that voting matters. That it is their lives which are effected. That it has an impact.


  4. I fear Student Unions are of… variable quality. The reports I get from Lancaster are depressing to say the least. To quote an email newsletter to which I subscribe:

    “Past elections, both local and national, have seen a colourful array of red, blue, orange, green and purple posters plastered up and down the spine. This year – nothing. Why should this be?

    Because there’s no point campaigning in a place with no voters, that’s why! The new Individual Electoral Registration scheme has combined with a distinct lack of will from the city council, which failed to send people round to chase up unregistered residents until January, and produced a record-breaking set of electoral registration rates – and not in a good way…

    …Let’s look at the electoral registration figures for campus. At the elections on 5th May, a total of 821 campus residents will be entitled to vote. According to Lancaster University Accommodation Services’ facebook page, there are “around 6500 bed spaces on our main campus”, so that means 12.6% of campus residents are entitled to vote. Hence the lack of any visible campaigning.

    The effect extends into town, where thousands of houses now contain no-one on the electoral roll. The empty houses are almost all student residences.

    Should we worry? After all, registration is very easy indeed these days, and it infantilises our students to place the blame on others. Many will conclude that most of Lancaster’s students know little and care less about the democratic process.

    Can we make them care? About elections – maybe not. But there’s another vote on 23rd June, and it takes place right in the middle of extrav week. As it stands, the vast majority of our students are ineligible to vote in the referendum. Deadline to register for that is 7th June. Will we see a sudden rush to participate? The subtext collective hopes so, but fears the worst.”

    Apathy is a factor, but this can be combatted by a half decent SU as you say. Alas Lancaster’s SU seems to be fast deteriorating.


  5. Can’t the students arrange a postal vote from their home address? I realise that someone at home might have to forward the form to them at uni, but at least they’d be voting in a constituency where they have a real (as opposed to temporary) connection.


    1. My gut feeling with this is that, while a stronger link to constituencies would be good, university towns are basically the only place where there is enough of a concentration of students to really represent their views – this is why Lib Dem strongholds are student communities. So yes, students could vote at home, but that would in effect make their impact negligible as a voting block.

      Also, given that many won’t have voted before university, trying to get them to both register AND complete a postal/proxy vote application is likely to reduce turnout even more. Just think about how much more complex an SU campaign which had to deal with postal vote reigistration would be. If it were up to me, I would revert to block registration (previously universities were able to register everyone eligible living in halls).


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