Our vote is a freedom that we all deserve

May 05, 2016

Ruth Wallbank (@ruthfranciszka) is a Systems Broker at Voices of Stoke, supporting individuals experiencing multiple needs. In this guest blog on election day, she reflects on voting and what it means – both for her, and for the people she works with.

Photo: Ben Terrett

When I was six years old, just before a general election I was sitting on my mum and dad’s drive, crushing those little red spiders you never see anymore, with another little girl who lived on my street. We were discussing politics.

“Who are your mum and dad voting for?” she asked.

“My mum and dad are voting for the new man,” I said.

“Don’t you want things to stay the same?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I want things to be better.”

I’m sure if this conversation had been overhead some inspirational music could have been added and it could be have been turned into a party political broadcast.

Ahead of today’s election, I have been reflecting on my own relationship with voting. Neither of my parents would describe themselves as particularly political people but they instilled in me the idea that voting was important: it gave you a right to moan and a chance to have your say. And though it doesn’t feel quite as simple as it did when I was six, elections still give me a feeling of hope, a feeling that positive change is possible.

Voting is still important to me. Thus, I was a little alarmed when a lady knocked on my door a few weeks ago and informed me that I was no longer on the electoral register. The changes in the way the register works means I, along with two million other people, had been bumped off the list – luckily, crisis averted, I was able to very quickly rectify this online.

But what if you don’t live somewhere where canvassers knock on your door to make sure you’re registered? What if you can’t look online and quickly register yourself? This is the situation for many of the people with multiple and complex needs I work with, yet the decisions made in Westminster affect their lives every day. So I decided to speak to several service users with multiple and complex needs about their own relationship with voting.

James* told me that he had never voted. He stated that having spent a lot of time in and out of prison over the last twenty years there were very few windows of opportunity where he was in a position to exercise his right to vote. I asked whether he would consider voting in the future. He said not. He felt that all politicians were the same and there was no one in power that he could trust.

Heather* had been registered and had voted in the past. However, as her life became more chaotic and she became homeless it was something that was forgotten and she hadn’t voted for the last ten years. When we checked, she was no longer registered. Heather was also under the impression, and admittedly so was I, that if you did not have a fixed address then you couldn’t vote.

This spurred some further research and I found that people without a fixed address need a ‘declaration of local connection’ form from the local authority. With this form, providing you’re a British citizen and over 18, voting is an option. There is lots of useful information about this kind of thing on Homeless Link’s Your Vote Matters website

As support workers it is not our responsibility to influence the way that our service users vote, and neither should we try. However, it is our responsibility to equip the people we support with the information and guidance they need to be a part of the community they live in. Like James*, some service users may choose not to vote, but they may still want support to register so that it’s an option should they ever change their mind.

The reasons they don’t vote might also be worth exploring with them. They may feel removed from politics, but if you arranged for a local politician to visit a service and chat to service users then they may feel differently. Heather* believed that she could not vote; finding out that she can and supporting her to make this happen felt like giving her back some control.

Our vote is one of the few things in life that is truly our own, it’s a freedom we all deserve. We can discuss it with people, argue about it, tweet about it, take selfies as we skip to the polling station, but ultimately when you stand in that booth no one can tell you where to put the X.

*Names have been changed. You can read more of Ruth’s writing on her personal blog.

Photo: Ben Terrett, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0