Today is polling day in the United Kingdom; people over 18 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be putting an ‘X’ in a box on a ballot paper. Some people will not be able to vote in the Election, however, even if they are registered: Dylan, for example. It’s not that Dylan isn’t entitled to vote – he has the same right to participate as other adults – but entitlement does not necessarily translate to participation.
One Person, One Vote
Three years ago, when Dylan became eligible to vote, I telephoned a Government helpline for advice on elections and the disabled. Dylan, I was told, could have assistance reading the ballot paper but would have to go alone into the voting booth. I explained that Dylan would not be able to do this; he would need support to allocate and insert an ‘X’ on a ballot paper. Dylan, I explained, could choose between concrete objects which are meaningful to him but would not be able to discriminate between candidates on a ballot paper. This does not, of course, disqualify a person from voting; you don’t have to have a learning disability to be unable to distinguish between politicians. As the organisation Every Vote Counts note:
Like anyone else, someone with learning disabilities has the right to choose who they want to vote for by any criteria they like. It is not up to anyone else to judge if reasons for choosing someone are valid or not. Equally, the decision over whether someone votes or not must be theirs and theirs alone. Carers and support workers are not allowed to make decisions on behalf of the person they care for when it comes to voting.
While it is important to support adults with learning disabilities to identify their own voting preferences, those with significant support needs may be disenfranchised by the stipulation that carers cannot vote on their behalf. Certainly this is the situation that emerged in relation to Dylan. If Dylan couldn’t vote in person, it was suggested when I sought advice, I could request a postal or proxy vote for him. As the Government advisor talked me through the requirements, however, it became clear this was no solution.
Whether voting in person, by post or by proxy, a vote must be cast for the candidate that the person with a learning disability chooses. If that person is unable to engage with the political process in order to do so, this clearly raises challenges in terms of exercising the right to vote. Furthermore, Section 29 of the Mental Capacity Act (2005) states that a person can only appoint a proxy if they have the mental capacity to do so. I can’t see how Dylan can use his vote, I said to the woman on the helpline. It was possible, she suggested, that carers in a similar position to me were claiming proxy votes anyway – but it was up to me whether or not to apply for one, she added.
Two People, Two Votes
It is not the case, of course, that because Dylan cannot engage with the voting system he does not have political interests. As a vulnerable adult, Dylan has a stake in policy decisions about disability benefits and the organisation of health and social care. More specifically, he has an interest in public transport systems; inclusive sport and leisure facilities; the maintenance of public parks; and the availability of high quality care workers. These are the things which matter to Dylan and which make a difference to the quality of his life. Because Dylan has an interest in the provision of these local services, on the run-up to council elections (the first vote Dylan was eligible to participate in) I thought about applying for a proxy vote for him. I wasn’t comfortable with the implications, however: firstly because I would have to lie about Dylan’s ‘capacity’ in order to be allocated such a vote and secondly because if it were allocated I would have to vote on his behalf.
If I were to vote on Dylan’s behalf, I asked myself, would I cast his vote the same way as my own? Our interests are shared, after all; an inclusive society which protects the vulnerable and prioritises health and social care. Surely this would mean two identical votes: ‘one person, two votes’? Or would it? What Dylan needs above all is effective local representation: a confident MP who knows the system, has leverage and can advocate for him. We live in Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s constituency. Although Clegg’s role as Deputy Prime Minister could have reduced his effectiveness as a constituency MP, that has not been my experience in relation to Dylan. Actually, Clegg was rather good when I asked for his help with a funding problem. Of course I cannot be sure that the swift resolution was due to Clegg’s intervention – maybe it was coincidence – but other parents of autistic children and adults in my constituency have reported similar experiences. I have never voted Liberal Democrat myself but if I were to vote on Dylan’s behalf I might. It is thus possible I would argue, when acting on behalf of someone else, to be ‘two people, two votes’.
Two People, One Vote
Frustrated by Dylan’s situation, on the run up to today’s election I tried a different approach. I have Power of Attorney for Dylan: were there special arrangements for those with such authority, I asked? As it turns out, there are, though this proved to be no solution either; as with vote by proxy, the person for whom you hold Power of Attorney has to authorise you to vote for them.
Today, therefore, Dylan and I are still ‘two people, one vote’. I assume that other adults whose learning disabilities mean they are not able to appoint a proxy are in a similar position. In addition, adults with learning disabilities who could vote with appropriate support may be unable to access this. Effectively, this disenfranchises adults with learning disabilities.
An entitlement to vote is not sufficient; it must be possible to exercise this right to vote. The nature of Dylan’s disability means that he requires someone to act in his best interests. While a vote on his behalf could be seen to threaten the principle of ‘one person one vote’ this does not, as I have argued here, have to be the case. It should be possible for the interests of adults with severe learning disabilities to be represented within a democratic system. A simple form, for example, could require those casting a vote on behalf of someone for whom they have Power of Attorney to include a brief rationale. Those of us who support adults with learning disabilities are quite used to justifying the decisions we make on their behalf; explaining a vote would not be excessive burden.
Alternatively, the government could just trust us.
Every Vote Counts provide information and support to people with learning disabilities and their carers.
The composite images of the three main party leaders are from The Independent and the image of Nick Clegg is via bbc.co.uk