Social workers’ role in promoting the human right to vote

Disabled people are often disenfranchised on unlawful grounds, such as mental capacity, and social workers have a key role in helping them challenge this, write Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Clare Reeves

Human rights card
Photo: relif/Fotolia

By Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Clare Reeves

In a 2011 paper, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights made the case that voting rights were arguably the most important aspect of participation in democratic and political life.  Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR) – which the UK agreed to follow in 1976 – sets out that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without unreasonable restrictions to vote and be elected.

Our review of the international literature has found, however, that people with disabilities do not universally experience their rights on the same basis as any other citizens. Rather, the literature finds that there is evidence of mass disenfranchisement of persons with disabilities through:

  • Unlawful exclusion on grounds of mental capacity and personal characteristics.
  • The civic nature of participation in person by voting at polling stations being trivialised with proxy or postal alternatives argued to be ‘better’ for disabled people.
  • Silencing of voices of dissent as an inevitable outcome from mental capacity and ill health being erroneously used as grounds for exclusion.

This is in direct contradiction to the protective measure drafted in response to ICCPR within Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006, which the UK agreed to follow in 2009. Under Article 29, people with disabilities have not only the right, but also the opportunity, to vote and to be elected.

For social workers, upholding the inherent dignity of all people with disabilities, respect for their autonomy and freedom to make choices are guiding principles consistent with the International Federation of Social Work’s Global Social Work Statement of Ethical Principles 2018.

Social workers know that people with disabilities are less likely to vote in local and national elections. As a profession, we know that people with disabilities often don’t know about their right to vote, and there is still an unlawful misperception that adults who lack ‘capacity’ cannot vote.

Social workers ‘promoting the vote’ since 2015

Since the UK general election in 2015, social workers have collaborated across council areas to campaign in solidary with local user-led organisations to Promote the Vote.

With each successive campaign, we are finding that the more social workers speak to people with disabilities about their right to register and vote, the more likely they are to do so.

Our campaign work on Promote the Vote starts early each year there is an election. The deadline for voter registration arrives faster than you might expect. We start by working alongside commissioners to positively encourage providers to work with us supporting and enabling voting. Providers are asked:

  • Do you have a policy on voting?
  • Do your staff receive training on voting rights?
  • Do you include support for people to vote in their support plans?

The first year we asked this, we found providers were confused about why we were interested. Increasingly, however, they are getting behind this and this year we have already been made aware of some providers’ plans before we’ve event reached out to ask.

As it gets closer to the deadline for voter registration, social workers visit care settings with easier to read resources about the right to vote, details on how to register to vote and reasonable adjustments to support people on the day to vote.

Where it would help enable a person to participate, we adjust support plans with one-off changes and speak to the provider to check they have staff who are trained and available to support voting.

In our local authority, our elections team provide training to all polling station staff on reasonable adjustments.

We also have a local voting passport, developed by a local group of learning disabled adults, which social workers help people fill out and which is recognised by staff in our polling stations.

Crucially, after the election, we follow up to check: did people actually vote?

Voter ID concerns

In this year’s local government elections in England on 4 May 2023, voters who want to vote in person will, for the first time, be required to produce photo ID at polling stations. From October 2023 voter ID will be rolled out across the UK for UK-wide elections.

We are really concerned that people with disabilities are likely to be at risk of not meeting this requirement for voter ID. To apply for a voter authority certificate, which is a newly introduced form of identification brought in under the voter ID legislation, people can be supported to apply if:

  • they do not have accepted photo ID;
  • they no longer look like the photo on their ID; or
  • the name on their photo ID is different to the name on the electoral register.

Voters can apply for this online, with easy read and large print options available from the Electoral Commission.

‘It’s all about equality’

Expert by experience Jazzmin has been involved in previous Promote the Vote campaigns and argues why neurodiverse young people, like herself, should be supported to participate.

“Promote the Vote got everyone together and we worked as a team. It was inclusive and information was broken down, and photos were taken, so that we could understand. I like Promote the Vote because I got the opportunity to help everyone out and I participated in setting up a mock polling station. It helps people with personal difficulties vote and it helps them become more confident. It doesn’t mean they are not capable. 

“It means a lot to me because I’m proud of myself and am making everyone proud of what I am doing. I don’t really understand the voting process but I liked getting involved by working as a team, as a family even. It is about listening to other opinions and it’s all about equality, how you feel and another person feels. No one is high or low. They all can use different skills to get people to vote.”

Five ways social workers can promote the vote 

  1. Include a conversation about voting in your assessments. Find out about whether people have been politically active in the past and if they are planning to be so in the future.
  2. Include in support plans any reasonable adjustment needed on the day to enable to the person to visit a polling station and vote in the person; and make sure this is something their support provider is aware of.
  3. Check that the person has voter ID so if they want to vote in person they are able to do so.
  4. Organise a briefing or information session for other social workers, sign up for any national briefings or webinars you see, which would count towards your CPD and renewal.
  5. Make contact with local user-led organisations and find out if they are running a local campaign about voter registration and voter ID that you can get involved with and support.

Elaine James is service manager, learning disabilities and preparation for adulthood, Rob Mitchell is principal social worker, and Clare Reeves is Care Act lead at Bradford council


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