Thousands of people with long-term health conditions are likely to have lost the right to vote in last week’s local elections in England, reports from campaigners suggest.
Scores of people who have compromised or suppressed immune systems contacted the Evusheld for the UK campaign group* after the election to say they had not been able to vote because of the new voter identification laws or had faced other discrimination at the polling station.
They wear masks because they are still shielding from COVID-19 and guidance around the new laws that say voters in England must show photographic identification at polling stations meant they were asked to remove those masks to prove their identity.
Some had to engage in distressing arguments with polling station staff – with some being turned away and denied a vote – while some had already decided they could not risk catching Covid and so stayed at home without voting.
Others encountered flexible staff with “common sense” who accompanied them outside so they could compare their face with their photo identification in the fresh air.
Campaigners warned before the elections that thousands of other disabled people were likely to have lost their right to vote because they did not have valid photographic identification.
Mark Oakley, a co-leader of Evusheld for the UK, said they had been contacted by scores of people since the election who had described the barriers to voting they had faced.
But his campaign group only has two or three thousand members, and there are hundreds of thousands of people in England who have compromised or suppressed immune systems which make them more vulnerable to Covid.
Oakley said: “A lot of people have been shielding from the start of Covid and still are, or are living a very restricted life, and to stand in front of someone in an enclosed space, you don’t know if they are Covid-positive or not and to take your mask off is something that a lot of people are just not willing to do because of the increased risk if they contract Covid.”
His group had raised the issue with the Electoral Commission a couple of weeks before the election and told the watchdog it had failed to make reasonable adjustments for immunocompromised people under the Equality Act, and that this was putting people at risk.
Oakley said many people want to be able to vote in person, and should have the right to do so.
He also raised concerns about the lack of early publicity around alternative voting options, such as proxy or postal votes.
He said: “Everybody has got that right to vote. If they want to walk into that polling station they have got a right to do it.
“They shouldn’t be denied it because they have a health issue.”
Oakley, who did not have council elections in his area last week, said: “I would still want to walk into that polling station and put my X on that paper.
“I would feel I had done my bit and that it is going to be counted.
“We were not asking for much. It is such a simple mitigation. Take them outside and allow them to do the ID check outside.”
Evusheld for the UK was told that, although the Electoral Commission wrote the guidance for the new laws, it was down to individual returning officers to decide how they dealt with voters wearing masks.
He said: “It’s farcical and it just seems rolled up in this whole thing of ‘the pandemic is over, and we’ve forgotten about this bunch of people’.”
He said it would have been easy for the Electoral Commission to include advice in its guidance that voters wearing masks could have their identification checked outside the polling station.
He said: “It’s not hard. It could have been done beforehand. It’s as simple as that: it recognises the issue, it deals with the problem, it removes the risk to people and it gives people that option.”
Oakley said there was “a significant proportion of the population” who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, although not all of them are still shielding or using masks.
The issue is also likely to have affected hundreds of thousands of disabled people who are clinically extremely vulnerable to Covid, and who might also have been reluctant to remove their masks inside a polling station.
Just a week before the election, Labour MP Andrew Gwynne had been told in a parliamentary answer: “The guidance that the Electoral Commission has given to polling clerks is that face coverings will need to be removed so that identity can be verified.”
An Electoral Commission spokesperson said this week that its guidance had allowed returning officers to make reasonable adjustments “where appropriate and possible”.
She said: “In some instances, it may have been possible for an identity check to be carried out in a space outside the polling station, but that will have depended on specific local circumstances at each polling station.
“For example, whether there were sufficient staff to enable the voting process to continue to be properly managed while one member of staff was outside, or whether there was suitable outside space for the check to be carried out.
“Given the large number of polling stations and the wide variety of locations and venues used, we were unable to make blanket recommendations for all polling stations.
“We review our guidance after each set of polls, and will consider feedback from administrators, voters, charities and other groups in ensuring our guidance is as helpful as possible in supporting the delivery of elections.”
Bethany Bale, policy and campaigns officer for Disability Rights UK, said: “The introduction of voter ID was always going to make voting more difficult.
“That’s why we campaigned against the elections bill and advised the Electoral Commission on how to implement this policy more accessibly, but the experiences faced by disabled voters last week were unacceptable.
“Disabled people already face disproportionate barriers to voting, from inaccessible polling stations to not having access to assistive equipment, and the addition of mandatory photo ID will have disenfranchised thousands of disabled people.
“We continue to call on the government to withdraw this policy and ask that the Electoral Commission conducts a thorough review of its impact.”
The Electoral Commission spokesperson said it was “too early to draw conclusions” about how many potential voters were affected by the mask issue.
She said: “We will publish a report, looking at evidence about how the elections were run and how voters found taking part, to inform the wider public debate about this new policy.
“We may also identify recommendations for changes to legislation to make improvements for future elections.
“As part of that process, we will take into account voters’ concerns and any evidence about the experience of voters who are immunocompromised.
“We know some voters had concerns about having to remove a face mask in the polling station.
“We are collating this feedback and will consider it after the election, alongside other evidence, as part of our election reporting process.”
She said the commission was “open to feedback and evidence about people’s experience at this year’s polls”.
The commission is also running an accessibility and voter ID survey of voters, which is designed to gather feedback from all disabled voters about their experiences during the election, including registering to vote and voting.
*The group is campaigning for the drug Evusheld, which offers protection from Covid, to be funded in the UK for immunocompromised people
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…