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.