Could Britons who are most at risk from Covid be denied the chance to vote?

People with disabilities and/or health conditions were already encountering unconscionable barriers before this

James Moore
Saturday 22 April 2023 13:08 BST
Council boss raps to encourage voters to check they have ID

Bad enough that Britain appears to be trying to forget that Covid exists and poses a potentially lethal risk to a substantial cohort of vulnerable people. But to deny them, potentially, the chance to vote?

“The way you vote is changing,” trumpets the Electoral Commission’s campaign, featuring giant sticky notes with hand-written reminders to bring ID to the polling station.

The Conservative government forced through the requirement, despite it seeming more like a solution in search of a problem.

Per Electoral Commission figures, a grand total of seven cases of alleged “personation” fraud – where someone allegedly impersonates someone else to steal their vote – were recorded at polling stations in 2022. The police dropped all of them for lack of evidence.

Despite this, voters will now be required to bring photo ID in order to take part in the forthcoming local elections.

This will have a disproportionate impact on the young and the poor, who are much less likely to have the requisite documents. But it could also have a chilling effect on those vulnerable to Covid.

Some of the most severely at risk are still, to all intents and purposes, shielding. When people with suppressed immune systems, for example, venture out, they typically wear a mask.

The fact that masks are no longer required in healthcare settings causes them no small degree of discomfort, and even fear. The fact that they will be asked to remove them for no good reason before voting is simply unconscionable.

“Those wearing a face covering to the polling station will be asked to momentarily remove it so that polling station staff can check the ID looks like them,” is how the Electoral Commission put it when I raised the issue.

Sure, perhaps the risk is small. But to somebody who is wearing a mask because of what a killer virus can do, that’s irrelevant. This is a very big deal.

“As always, anyone that feels uncomfortable attending a polling station has the option to vote by post or proxy,” the commission told me.

But that’s not the point. Do you trust the post at the moment? Do you have someone you trust to vote on your behalf? Are these questions even relevant? The right to vote is fundamental to a democracy. The right to attend a polling station in person to exercise that right ought to be no different.

“If anyone has concerns, they should contact the local returning officer to understand what local arrangements are in place to support the voting process,” said the commission.

Quite how that is going to help isn’t altogether clear.

“While we appreciate the suggestion to contact local returning officers, we believe that accessibility should not be left to chance or individual discretion. Clinically vulnerable individuals should not have to face difficult decisions on the day,” said Clinically Vulnerable Families, a support group. “Accessibility and inclusivity must be a top priority for elections.”

Quite so. While not everyone who is clinically vulnerable to Covid would consider themselves disabled, this clearly opens a new front in a long-running battle. People with disabilities and/or health conditions were encountering unconscionable barriers before this, particularly if they wanted to attend a polling station.

In February, a House of Commons research briefing found that “many disabled voters still experience barriers to political participation”. A report for the Royal National Institute of Blind People found that barely more than one in 10 blind voters (13 per cent), and less than half of partially sighted voters (44 per cent), said they could vote independently and in secret.

“Wheelchair users and voters who use other mobility aids often find polling stations inaccessible,” the report said, citing a survey by the charity Revitalise. It found that 88 per cent of local authorities had failed to provide accessibility information about polling stations on their websites.

A survey of voters with learning disabilities, conducted in 2014, indicated that 17 per cent were turned away at the polling station because of their learning disability and 60 per cent said that registering to vote was too hard. Now voting itself is even harder.

Just like many disabled people, people with Covid vulnerabilities are at risk of losing their franchise.

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