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How (Not) To Vote: Barriers to the Ballot Box

by Now Then Sheffield
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For many of us, voting is pretty straightforward.

As long as you've registered, on 12 December you will go to a local public building, give your name, put a mark on a slip and pop it into the ballot box. You don't need your ID or your polling slip and the polling stations are open from 7am to 10pm. They even provide the pencils. If you're not voting in person, it's likely you've already made your decision via postal vote. If you don't put a cross in the box, it's because you've chosen not to.

But whilst voting is a fundamental right, for some of the 31% who didn't vote in the 2017 General Election, there wasn't much choice.

A recent report from the House of Commons Library identified key demographics to research in order to improve political engagement: youth, female, disabled people, ethnic minorities, unskilled workers and the unemployed. While it suggested a few bullet points for improvements, the report was published too late and only further isolates and ignores communities. What about the homeless? What about people in hospital? What about migrant or traveller groups?

These systems are inaccessible and unacceptable

Beginning at the registration process, people are being excluded from voting. Those without access to an internet connection can't go online to register or acquire the forms easily. Those who find the language too complicated or the interface too difficult don't get the support they need. If you are homeless or have no fixed address you can vote, but you must be able to print off and return five pages of forms. These systems are inaccessible and unacceptable.

In the run-up to the election, Foodhall and ACORN have been encouraging and facilitating a mass voter registration drive in Sheffield. Whether that's providing the resources and the forms, dropping into migrant group meetings, hospitals and food banks, or facilitating registration in house, it's a collaborative project to tackle voter inequality. There are as many as 1.2 million people on low incomes who did not vote in 2017 who could become politically engaged this December.

If political parties published their manifestos in easy-to-read formats, Mencap suggests there could be a million more voters. Simple, accessible information would allow not only those with learning disabilities the opportunity to have their voices heard, but also those who find written information hard to digest or whose first language isn't English.

Even getting to the booth to cast your vote can be a challenge. Many of those in hospital may not have had the opportunity to switch options before entering. Scope estimates that two-thirds of polling stations in 2010 had one or more significant barriers to access for disabled voters. So while some are cut off by virtue of their circumstances, there are physical blockades preventing others from casting their vote.

And of course, those who are marginalised from the voting process are often most affected by the outcome of elections. With both major parties promising public spending as a priority at the time of writing, before the manifestos are even published, whoever enters Number 10 will be making crucial, life-changing decisions on the NHS, housing, worker rights and much more. Elections are important for everyone, but those who rely most on these infrastructures are the ones being forced out.

Labour's success in preventing a Conservative majority at the last election is often credited to the largest turnout of youth voters in recent times. If the mobilisation of one group can cause ripples, imagine the tidal wave we could create if other marginalised groups were given the opportunity. But far more important than political gain, everyone should have equal access to our democracy.

Ellys Woodhouse

by Now Then Sheffield

Next article in issue 141

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