Today is an important day in British history. Whichever way the referendum to leave or stay in the EU goes, British politics and society will be massively affected as the UK’s direction of travel is defined for the near future.
Voting, and our human right to vote, is crucial in maintaining the liberal society we live in. A recent YouGov poll shows that British people consider the right to vote our most important right. On this important day, we explore what the right to vote means, and why it’s so important.
An introduction to our right to vote
The right to vote in free and fair elections seems fairly well established in the UK today. However, we only have to look to England in the 1800s to see a situation where there was no secret ballot, candidates could bribe voters, and only landowners could vote.
And today, there are numerous examples across the world of elections being held where the opposition is silenced, there is not a fair and transparent process and ultimately there can be no certainty that the result reflects the true will of the people.
How does the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) fit in?
The European Court of Human Rights has stated that voting is a right, not a privilege. It underpins our democratic society where we are governed by consent, by people that are elected and accountable to the people.
Article 3 of the First Protocol to the ECHR ensures there are “free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
This right not only guarantees the opportunity to vote and stand in elections, but that the process behind those elections is fair. In the UK we have a strict set of rules in place to ensure elections are as fair as possible, (together called ‘electoral law’). The rules include media fairness provisions, fair criteria on who can stand in elections and restrictions on political donations and election spending, a wide entitlement to vote and laws against bribery and making false statements.
While we can never create a perfect democracy, the aim is to create as level a playing field as possible so that everyone can have their say and that (within reason) anyone can stand to be elected.
Article 3 of Protocol 1 has been used in the European Court of Human Rights to protect:
- groups that have been excluded from being able to vote for no reason
- elected people where the law does not allow them to take their seats
- against irregularities in election procedure – for example against unfair recounts or invalidating votes cast in certain electoral divisions
It has also meant that, controversially, the UK has been found in breach of this article for failing to allow any prisoners to vote.
And now for why it matters
So that’s the legal procedure, but why is voting important?
There is a simple, practical reality to voting. If you do not like the current government, your MP or councillor, you can vote against them at the next election. If enough of your fellow citizens agree with you, they will be replaced in a peaceful orderly manner. If not enough people agree with you, the current government will stay on, but you can live with that as your fellow citizens have made the decision. Voting is the best way to make a decision about who should run the country or represent you.
There may be a perception that politicians are out of touch, and never listen. But there is a great incentive for politicians to listen and respond to the concerns of voters, which is that if they don’t they’ll be replaced by someone more willing to listen. One consequence of this is that politicians tend to gear their policies towards those they know will vote. In the UK, politicians tend to focus their energies and policies on older people more likely to vote than younger people. The key point being, if you and those around you vote, you will be listened to.
So, if you haven’t already, go out and vote in the EU referendum today.
- Read more about your right to vote and stand in an election and referendum here.
- Get the truth about that prisoners voting case here.
- Read about 7 times the EU made a difference for UK human rights.