The Hidden Barriers to Voting in the Upcoming General Election

In this blog Rachael Mole explains the inaccessibility of voting for many people across the country. Rachael is part of our Spokesperson Network.

As the general election approaches, most of us are contemplating whether we want to vote and how we’ll cast our ballots. For many, the process is straightforward, whether voting in person or by post. However, unless you’ve encountered barriers to voting, it might not occur to you that hundreds of thousands of people face significant challenges that prevent them from exercising their democratic right.

One of the most significant issues is the overlapping systemic barriers that prevent many from accessing the new voter ID system. Accepted forms of ID for voting include passports, driving licences, or bus passes—all of which come with costs to acquire and require a level of online proficiency and administrative effort that many disabled and elderly people struggle with. While a free Voter Authority Certificate is available for those who face financial barriers, the application is also online and only useful for in-person voting.

Statistics and Reports: A Grim Picture

The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee criticised the current electoral registration system as inefficient and ineffective, highlighting that the voter photo ID requirement exacerbates these issues. They recommended broadening the list of accepted photo IDs to include emergency service passes and non-London travel passes. Additionally, an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution report pointed to a rise in racial and disability discrimination at local elections, and also called for a wider range of acceptable ID documents, especially with a General Election looming. 

Despite this, the Government has chosen not to expand the list of accepted photo IDs, even though research from last year’s local elections shows that around 740,000 people—about 4% of voters—were turned away for lack of adequate ID. The reality is likely worse; a government report from the 2023 local elections in England indicates that disabled, unemployed people, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds are disproportionately affected.

Specific Challenges for Disabled Voters

The Electoral Commission outlines several barriers disabled individuals face when voting, such as inaccessible information and instructions, anxiety about navigating polling stations, physically inaccessible locations, insufficient support or auxiliary aids, and inadequate training for polling staff on disability awareness. Blind and partially sighted voters, in particular, struggle with reading and marking ballots independently due to inadequate equipment and lighting. The RNIB’s 2019 report revealed that more than one in ten blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters could vote independently and in secret, with nearly a quarter relying on polling station staff for assistance. 

It isn’t just physical health barriers that present barriers to voting either. Debs Teale, mental health freelance consultant and training facilitator 

“As mental health is very different each day, sometimes it is not always possible to predict which day you will be OK and which day you will not. Postal votes are OK but you need to make sure you can return the form in time to be counted. Many people I’ve spoken to find it easier to not bother voting as they do not know if they can because of the unpredictability of their illnesses.” 

For Teale, this is a personal issue, “I have irlens and dyslexia so require coloured paper. I struggle to read anything on white and the lighting is never great where I go which adds to the distress. I have tried postal votes but received a letter six weeks after the election to say my vote hadn’t been counted because it hadn’t been filled in correctly. Why did it take so long to let me know?”

For many, the solution suggested by the government is to attend the polling station in person, but the reality is that this isn’t always an accessible second option. Travel logistics, time off work, physical and mental health makes leaving the house a challenge- not everyone has a support network able to take the time to support them to attend a polling station. 

“It made me upset that all the effort I had gone to had been wasted.” Teale said, talking about how she is now able to vote- and have it count. “I now go to the polling station but need to go with someone who can assist me filling it in as it isn’t accessible.”

Current Guidelines and their Shortcomings

Draft guidance on the political participation of disabled people, advises that Returning Officers manning polling stations should provide and make available information and equipment for disabled voters at polling stations; such as large print ballot papers, magnifiers, tactile voting devices, wheelchair-accessible booths, pencil grips, ramps, and reserved parking spaces. However, these are just recommendations and not legal requirements, meaning their implementation can be inconsistent.

Proxy voting is another option, allowing someone to vote on behalf of another either in person or by post. Yet, this requires a level of trust and support that not everyone has within their network. Moreover, registering for a proxy vote is an online process, further complicating access for many. The process of registering for a proxy vote is online, by the 26th June in time for the election on July 4th. 

A Call for Change

It’s crucial to clarify that the issue isn’t about making it easier for unauthorised individuals to vote but about making it easier for legitimate voters to obtain necessary ID and physically cast their votes. The current system places undue burdens on disabled and marginalised communities, effectively disenfranchising them from taking part in their democratic right to vote. 

Teale would like to see voting move online, to make voting accessible to anyone registered to vote, regardless of how they are feeling on the day, and support those who face other barriers. “It would open it up to those who feel unable on the day to vote. I would also like the homeless to be able to vote as a lot of those I speak with would like to vote but they don’t have an address/ card/Id to be able to.” 

Disabled and want to have your say? You can share your experiences in the Disability Policy Centres Accessible Voting research survey, in partnership with WelcoMe. You can also contact your Parliamentary candidates about barriers to voting- after all, they will be trying to make sure they get all the votes they can! Find out who your candidates are using this handy non-partisan checker, produced by Democracy Club CIC.

About the author

Rachael Mole is an award winning accessibility in the workplace specialist. Disabled since the age of 12, she is an advocate for inclusion as a driver for cultural change. As a People and Project manager, their current work, supported by a Churchill Fellowship, explores how inclusion drives innovation, aiming to influence future workplace policies. Rachael is now the Managing Director of Moleworks Solutions.

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