Since the announcement of a ‘snap’ general election, some people might be wondering who has the right to vote, and how to make sure that everyone who has the right to vote has the opportunity to vote, especially if they have a disability or support someone with a learning disability, dementia or other capacity impairment. The problem with calling a general election with such little notice is that it makes it very important that people: are aware of the rules on eligibility to vote, ensure that they are registered to vote, and that they know how to vote. And all of this has to happen quickly, as the deadlines for registering to vote (22 May 2017), requesting a postal vote (23 May 2017) or a proxy vote (31 May 2017) are shorter than they would usually be.
First things first: nearly everyone has the right to vote, including people with intellectual disabilities, dementia, learning difficulties or other issues that cause impaired mental capacity. People with disabilities that affect their mental capacity have the right to be listed on the electoral register, and all historical common law rules that prevented people with intellectual disabilities from being registered to vote or to vote were repealed by statute over a decade ago. This excellent blog by Lucy Series from 2012 gives more information on the legal sources and analysis of their meaning.
Regular readers of this blog will remember my recent post on the differences between legal capacity and mental capacity. The right to vote is an important right associated with legal capacity. It is important that everyone uses their right to vote, and that people who need support to exercise their right to vote get the support they need, without having anyone put pressure on them about who to vote for. Under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, there are some decisions that cannot be made by other people on anyone’s behalf, and who to vote for (and whether to vote) is one of these decisions. There is no functional test of mental capacity applicable to voting, and there is no legal way for somebody else to vote on behalf of another in their “best interests”. Every adult has the right to cast one vote in an election. Nobody has the right to cast an extra vote. If a person with an intellectual disability wants to vote, they are legally entitled to do so, and to have support to vote in person at a polling station, by post, or by proxy.
A great deal of current political debate is on issues that directly affect the lives of people with disabilities, from decisions about benefits, to issues about which disability rights might be affected by Brexit, the recent decision to leave the EU following the 2016 referendum. It is vital that people with disabilities of all kinds vote in this election and make their voices heard. Scope, the disability charity, tweeted there are 13 million disabled people in Britain. There are over 1.5 million people with intellectual disabilities in the UK, and over three quarters of a million people with dementia. Millions of votes cast by people with disabilities will make a difference to the outcome of this election.
Everybody’s vote counts for the same as everybody else’s vote: but only if they are registered to vote, and actually vote. Registering to vote is straightforward – it can be done online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. People with disabilities also have the choice of whether to vote in person at a polling station, or to request a postal vote or a proxy vote. People with intellectual disabilities voting at a polling station are entitled to support, either from their own supporter, or from the staff at the polling station. A postal vote might be a good option for people with intellectual disabilities who find it difficult to do new or unusual things at particular times. No reason needs to be given for requesting a postal vote – simply download the form from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/apply-for-a-postal-vote and return it to the relevant local authority.
Proxy votes are slightly different – a person can only appoint a proxy voter if they have the mental capacity to do so. That is, the person appointing the proxy needs to be able to understand that if they appoint a proxy they will not be able to vote themselves at the polling station, or by post, because they have given the responsibility to their proxy to do that on their behalf. A person acting as a proxy must use their proxy vote to vote for the candidate chosen by the person who appointed them as a proxy. The application form may need to be signed by a health or social care professional if ‘disability’ is given as the reason for applying for proxy vote. Information about applying for a proxy vote is available at: https://www.gov.uk/apply-vote-proxy.
Mencap produced a detailed easy read information pack about voting for the 2015 General Election that can still be downloaded from their website. It has not yet been updated for the 2017 General Election, so the dates and deadlines it contains are incorrect. The dates for the 2017 election have now been published, and are:
- Deadline to Register to Vote: Monday 22 May 2017
- Deadline for Applying for a Postal Vote: 5pm on Tuesday 23 May 2017
- Deadline for Applying for a Proxy Vote: 5pm on Wednesday 31 May 2017
- Polling Day: Thursday 8 June 2017
In the coming weeks, and as the main parties publish their election manifestos, the everyday decisions research team plan to explore the possible implications of the parties’ policy proposals on people with disabilities. We’ll post blogs and tweet about our analysis, so please follow us on twitter @legalcapacity!
Links and further information:
- Our Everyday Decisions Right to Vote Infographic: Your Right to Vote
- The Electoral Commission’s voting information website: https://www.yourvotematters.co.uk/
- Mencap’s easy read info on voting: https://www.mencap.org.uk/voting-and-registering-vote
- Register to vote: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote
- Request a Postal Vote: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/apply-for-a-postal-vote
- Request a Proxy Vote: https://www.gov.uk/apply-vote-proxy
 To vote in a UK general election, voters need to be a British citizen (or a qualifying commonwealth citizen), over the age of 18, not a member of the House of Lords, not in prison (a bone of contention between the UK Government and the European Court of Human Rights) following conviction, and not barred from doing so by reason of particular convictions for corrupt or illegal practices.
 Mental Capacity Act 2005, section 29.