Postal vote reform and Britain’s disabled voters

Picture of the entrance to a polling station at West Hampstead community hallLast week the issue of postal voting reform in the UK was in the news again, after a judge who had found six Labour councillors in Birmingham guilty of postal voting fraud in 2005, saying that the fraud would “disgrace a banana republic”, claimed that only one of fourteen types of fraud he identified had been “just about tackled”. The issue was discussed on Radio 4’s The World At One programme and one interviewee suggested that the rule by which postal votes are issued on demand was scrapped, because it had not increased voter turnout (those who used them generally did so for convenience and would have voted in person had they not been allowed a postal vote) and that no other democracy had postal voting on demand. The issue of whether people with certain types of disabilities would be excluded if the rules on postal voting were tightened was not discussed. (You can listen to the programme here until Wednesday or Thursday, i.e. a week after it was broadcast.)

The issue of fraud is a very real one, and over the years both parties have been responsible (in the 1992 election, so-called “granny farming”, in which elderly people in old people’s homes were signed up for postal votes which were then swapped for proxy votes, cast by Tory party workers for their own party, was a big problem and may have swung some seats); this time round, it was the Labour party which feared the loss of the Asian Muslim vote because of dissatisfaction about the Iraq war. Various methods were used, including the theft of batches of clearly-labelled envelopes containing postal voting forms, either by force from postmen or by the postmen themselves; sometimes the forms were stolen from letterboxes although this obviously has lower “yields”. Another concern by politicians opposed to Labour, such as Salma Yaqoob of the Respect party, is that fathers prevail upon their children to order postal votes which he then casts for them. The Asian community has long been in the pocket of the Labour party because they are the major party which has the best record of defending the rights of immigrants and ethnic minorities, but that relationship broke down when Blair’s government took the UK to war in 2001 and 2003. There are other reasons why young Muslim voters seek alternatives to Labour: the relationship is often with “community leaders” who tend to be middle-aged, male, not born in the UK and often from particular sections of the society “back home”; some voters want to be represented by their religion, not their ethnicity, and do not want someone who has ambitions of a ministerial career. However, voting for minority parties often works to the benefit of a larger party, particularly in a marginal constituency.

However, the need to combat fraud, which was perpetrated by one party in one particular section of the community, needs to be balanced against the needs of those who need a postal vote: principally, those whose disabilities prevent them from accessing a polling station. Permanent wheelchair users whose local polling station is inaccessible would no doubt have their reasons accepted for having a postal vote; it is those with fluctuating conditions, or those who cannot walk for long distances (or stand for long periods, as when there is a queue) even if they can walk around the house, or those with poorly-understood conditions like ME, who might lose out. This would be particularly true if the “reason” for needing a postal vote would necessarily include a formal diagnosis; a person with ME might be diagnosed with “chronic fatigue syndrome”, which might lead polling officials to conclude “they could get to the polling station, but would get a bit tired”, but they might not get a diagnosis at all if the important people within the medical profession in their region refuse to accept it exists. Another person might be struggling to get a diagnosis for a physical condition but keeps coming up against the assumption that their symptoms are psychological. Quite possibly, the same people who are having trouble being approved for sickness and disability benefits would also be deprived of their right to vote.

I do not think for a moment that those seeking to reform the postal voting system actually want to disenfranchise anyone — quite the opposite — but there are ways of making sure postal votes are not stolen or issued to people who do not exist without depriving those who need to vote from home of the ability to do so. Officials could query postal vote requests if most or all of a family request them, for example, especially if entire families are doing it in large numbers in a particular constituency, so their need for a postal vote could be ascertained (paper evidence of a forthcoming family holiday, for example). Voting forms should be sent out in less obvious packaging, and staggered so that a large (and thus detectable) does not go out in one day. Postmen could be brought in from other areas, such that those postmen matching the profile of those involved in the fraud do not have access to the postal voting forms. There are two vulnerable groups of voters here and it is important to strike a balance so that we do not disenfrancise one group with measures intended to stop the theft of votes from the other.

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