When people in the UK usually talk about electoral disenfranchisement, they're usually referring to the perverse results generated by our first-past-the-post voting system, where, for example, Labour and the Lib Dems can get almost the same number of votes nationally, but Labour get 5 times as many seats.
There are plenty of campaigns springing up now, even before the last vote is counted, to protest against this and demand electoral reform and a fairer voting system before the next election.
Good for them. I support them, and have been a firm believer in the need for a Proportional Representation system of voting for many years myself.
This election, though, saw an even worse form of disenfranchisement, where people were not even able to get into the polling booths to cast their vote. When you can't even cast a vote, exactly how much value it would have if you could becomes an entirely academic question.
ETA: The human rights group Liberty is campaigning on this issue.
- In "parts of London, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Surrey" voters were turned away as the polling stations didn't have enough staff to deal with the queues before the 10pm deadline.
- At least two blind voters may have unintentionally spoilt their papers due to a lack of polling staff trained in the correct use of the provided accessibility aids. Most polling stations have some form of accessibility problems.
- In Liverpool, at least one polling station ran out of ballot papers.
- In Sheffield Hallam, there are reports that students were treated as second-class voters, causing many to be unable to vote.
- In Chester, the updated electoral register was not distributed properly to polling stations, potentially losing hundreds of people their votes.
CaitieCat at Shakesville is collecting reports of disenfranchisement, and the comments thread there is where I found most of the above. Please add your own reports over there if you know of any.
As she says, "... it's really important for progressivists to be all over this disenfranchisement, because it almost certainly will have disproportionately affected people with lower incomes and less societal power.".
So, let's get working!
This is an initial draft of a letter that I'm going to be sending to my MP (Yay! I have an MP again!). Please let me know in comments what you think - is there anything I've missed out, anything that could be better worded, any displays of unacknowledged privilege, etc?
I also intend to send a slightly modified version of this letter to the Electoral Commission, who are directly responsible for the conduct of elections.
At this general election, there have been numerous cases of people being denied their right to vote, or having voting made far more difficult for them than it needs to be. This disenfranchisement has generally hit the people who already had little societal power, and reflects very badly on the state of democracy in the UK.
In numerous constituencies, many people were turned away from the polling stations at 10pm, despite having arrived in what they believed to be plenty of time. I believe that we should change the law on polling to match the model used in Canada and other countries, where provided that someone is queueing to vote before the deadline, they will be guaranteed a vote.
Anyone who works traditional 9-to-5 hours will find it difficult to vote, unless they happen to work within easy walking distance of their own polling station, except in the evening. There is therefore an inevitability in many areas that the polling stations will be most busy in the late evenings, when there may be fewer spare staff to run them, and a rapidly approaching deadline. In addition to changing the law on deadlines, I therefore believe that election days (general, local or European) should be public holidays, so that the majority of people do not need to arrange voting around their work or childcare needs, and those people whose jobs still require work on public holidays will at least have to compete with fewer people for space at the polling booth once they do leave work.
There have also been reports of many polling stations lacking the necessary accessibility measures to allow all UK electors their vote. The polling station I visited did not have any lowered voting booths suitable for wheelchair users. At http://jady-lady.livejournal.com/99603.html a voter talks about their experience as a blind person, where the polling station staff had not been trained in using the tactile templates intended to allow blind people to vote in secrecy, and the possibility that this may have led to their vote being spoilt. At the very least, steps must be taken to ensure that all polling stations are universally accessible and all polling staff are thoroughly trained in the use of any accessibility aids.
Continuing on the theme of accessibility, I note that some elections staff have been blaming voters for their own predicament in the press for not being willing to brave long queues for their vote. Not everyone has the time or energy to stand in a queue - possibily in the cold and rain - for an unknown length of time. Expecting people to do so is a failure to provide reasonable adjustments under the Disability Discrimination Act, in my opinion, and not something that anyone should be recommending.
This country has been running democratic elections for a very long time, and it reflects very badly on the country and on the priorities of its successive governments that it still does not appear to achieve the basic requirements of universal suffrage. People with disabilities, people with demanding jobs and unsympathetic bosses, people with unavoidable childcare commitments, people who were just unlucky on the day - this disenfranchisement is hitting hardest the people who society already makes life difficult for.
Will you, whether your party forms part of the next government or not, push strongly for urgent legislation on the conduct of elections to ensure that no future UK election - be it general, local or European - has the same unacceptable disenfranchisement of voters?
Feel free to steal or adapt any parts of the letter you want to use in your own writing, of course.