Election '97: Refusenik loses fight for the right not to vote

Baffled officials frustrate elector's bid to resign from register
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The Independent Online
It is a quintessentially English dispute. In one corner, a determined home counties non-voter who, disillusioned with politics, demands that his name be removed from the electoral register. In the other, the forces of bureaucracy. They refuse doggedly to comply - solely, it appears, because they do not believe they have to.

The issue has given rise to an extraordinary 15-month correspondence between our hero, who wishes to remain anonymous, and the authorities.

This electoral refusenik, who lives in Hampshire, has no wish to evade taxation or to break the law. He merely wishes formally to renounce his right to vote. The nub of his problem is that while it is not unlawful not to appear on the register, it is unlawful not to fill in the registration form. And filling in the form leads, inexorably, to appearance on the register.

His first foray into the narrow world of local electoral bureaucracy took place in November 1995. He had been on the roll since the Sixties, but now his anger at what he describes as "a bizarre and lugubrious search for political leadership ... among the floating voters" got the better of him. He asked to be removed from the draft electoral register.

The request brought a swift response from a junior council official. Householders were required to fill in their details on "Form A", it said. These details could be placed on a register of "other electors", if there was a good case for suppressing them.

As he had already filled in the form, Mr No was not impressed. "With the greatest respect, your letter seems to miss the point," he replied. "I formally abrogate my voting rights and do not wish to be a voter ... This does not mean that I do not want to vote but rather that I do not even wish to be associated with the constituency of voters."

The reply was curt: "Thank you for your letter ... I have retained your name on the Register of Electors as required by Law. Yours Faithfully."

The refusenik tried again: "Dear Sir. Not good enough. I shall take the matter further through the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Yours Faithfully."

And so he did. In a long, eloquent missive he made his case. "It is only if the elector rejects participation in the circus that parliamentarians will recognise the extent of [their] folly," he thundered. But to no avail.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman could not help, it said. Try the Local Government Ombudsman. And so he did. Again, a lengthy reply, this time from an "investigator". Again, no joy. The Local Government Ombudsman, it said, could not help. No injustice had taken place that would justify an investigation.

This time the refusenik took to the telephone. His call to the district council drew a response from its solicitor, but still little progress. It was now October 1996. He should wait for the new draft register to appear in November and then object, it suggested. And so, again, he did. On 7 December. Then he waited for a reply. And waited.

Finally, on 14 March, his patience broke. He telephoned the council to complain. Another three weeks went by. The election campaign began. On 9 April, came a response, again from the solicitor. "On looking through the file I have to acknowledge that I have let you down. I have somehow got it into my head that your appeal lay with the County Court ... I appreciate this is a matter you again may wish to take up with the Ombudsman," it said. To add insult to injury, it suggested he wait until the 1997 draft register appeared in November.

The refusenik's reply last weekend was more in sorrow than in anger: "Let me ask you a simple question - it is rhetorical, I do not crave a reply, only silent reflection," he began. "Is the act of not voting a clear and unequivocal proof of the elector's rejection of the election?"

If so, how did the solicitor feel about the fact that between 70 and 80 per cent of voters did not turn out at local elections? Was he apprehensive? Or did he, like the politicians, not really care?

"You have successfully frustrated me," he concluded. "Justice delayed is justice denied."