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Guest Blog: What is the right to free elections?

This blog will cover the right to free elections in preparation of the 2024 General Election related to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the importance of individuals understanding the rights as well as public authorities being held accountable for their duties to support people to vote.  

Written by our Lived Experience Expert Charli. As an autistic and neuro-divergent person, Charli’s unique perspective to elections comes from her experiences having lived as an in-patient in a children’s mental health service. 

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR. 

What is the right to free elections?

Article 3, Protocol 1 in the Human Rights Act (HRA) is the right to free elections, which applies to the current General Election and applies to all people who are eligible to vote in the UK. Free elections must be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, and they must be done ‘under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people’.  

This right protects our right to vote and our right to stand for election. This right is what we call a non-absolute right which means it does have some limitations. In the case of Ahmed v the UK (1998) it was confirmed that Article 3, Protocol 1, HRA has implied limitations with two key criteria used by the European Court of Human Rights to assess why the right is restricted in some way. Firstly, if it is proportionate and also whether it interferes with people’s free expression.  

For the 4th July 2024 General Election, you must be registered to vote and if voting in person you must present a form of Voter Identification (ID). If you don’t have accepted photo ID, don’t look like your ID photo or have a different name on your ID to the electoral register, you can apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate online. The following deadlines apply to accessing your vote this summer in England, Scotland and Wales:

How to ensure your right to free elections 

Registering for a proxy vote: 26th June 2024. 

Applying for a free Anonymous Voters Document: as soon as you can (for people with safety concerns) 

Applying for a free Voter Authority Certificate (ID): by 5pm on Wednesday 26th June 2024.  


Note: All election processes in Northern Ireland are run by The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland." 


There are significant accessibility issues that can restrict the right to free elections which also restrict several other rights under the HRA. Article 8, HRA is the right to private and family life, home and correspondence, and can be impacted by restricted access to voting whether it be through physical accessibility to polling stations or lack of accessible materials such as Easy Read, BSL, large print or braille. This affects an individual’s rights to autonomy, participation and wellbeing.  

This can also restrict the right to freedom of association and assembly (Article 11, HRA) which is about promoting democracy for an individual’s human rights.  

The restriction of accessibility to polling stations falls under the right to be free from discrimination (Article 14, HRA) which applies to disabled individuals. This right is a “piggy-back right” which means rather than being a right not to be discriminated against overall, it refers to discrimination when trying to access another right also protected under the HRA. 

It is really important that no one faces a challenge when they want to vote, guidance was made by the Electoral Commission for local officials in charge of polling stations too assist disabled voters. 

How is it supported in inpatient care?

It is really important to understand that issues such as lack of mental capacity for some decisions under the Mental Capacity Act and similar legislation do not apply to capacity and right to vote - the Electoral Commission says “persons who meet the other registration qualifications are eligible for registration regardless of their mental capacity”. Similarly, those who are held in psychiatric units are still eligible to vote and should be supported to access their right to vote, whether that be in person through leave into the community or through access to a postal or proxy vote with increased access to technology in order to register and to having post sent out.  

Public bodies have a duty under the Human Rights Act to make sure rights are able to be accessed by individuals without discrimination or restrictions.  

Read more about duties under the Human Rights Act here. 

I and others know from experience, that many units often put media bans in place, sometimes when there is controversial or difficult news which must be considered under Article 8, HRA as being lawful, legitimate and proportionate. During an election period, allowing for information to be accessed around candidates and campaigns is crucial in order for individuals to make an informed decision which is importance under the right to freedom of expression covered by Article 10, HRA when they impact on expression and receiving information. 

Being sectioned or held in a mental health unit should still allow for equal enjoyment of the vote, not just access to it.  

Young people are also less likely to vote in the UK with survey-based data suggesting this to be consistently the case, with 18-25 year olds the least likely to vote.   

In the 2017 General Election, the lowest turnout was among 18–34-year-olds who were unemployed or doing ‘unskilled’ or ‘semi-skilled’ labour, with a turnout of 35% (Janmaat and Hoskins, 2019). Socioeconomic inequality and age intersect to impact on voter turnout and there should be more concerted efforts to support young and working-class individuals to understand not only their right to vote but why they should want to do so, and how the results of elections may impact them.  

Access to information

For young people held in psychiatric wards, access to information about registering to vote and understanding of political literacy is crucial. The right to education is Article 2, Protocol 1, HRA. This should go beyond core subjects - many young people do not get equal access to other aspects of education like political and media literacy that they should receive if in mainstream schooling through PSHE. This can leave without equal enjoyment of the vote when they reach voting age, for example not being registered or not knowing how to interpret candidate information. It is critical that young people do not become disenfranchised from their vote due to lack of understanding or education around this when in the system.

The impact of Voter Identification (ID)

Since the introduction of the Elections Act 2022, Voter ID has been required in order to vote in UK Parliament elections, local elections in England, local referendums, and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. The local elections on 4th May 2023 were the first to require this, and the 4th July 2024 will be the first General Election to do so.  

Data from the 2023 election found that around 14,000 people tried to vote and couldn’t due to not meeting this requirement, as well as 4% of non-voters not voting due to the need for voter ID.  

Multiple reports have looked at who is less likely to have voter ID and more likely to not access the vote due to this. A research briefing by the House of Commons (Johnston and Uberoi, 2023) found that 14% of unemployed people, 7% of those with lower education levels, and 10-17% of those in rented local authority or housing association accommodation did not have a suitable form of ID, whilst Cabinet Office research (IFF research, 2021) also found that disabled people are less likely to hold voter ID alongside those who have previously voted.  

Many charities have discussed concerns around the further depriving of voters from marginalised groups due to the introduction of Voter ID where they were already less likely to vote, such as disproportionately impacting blind and partially sighted people (RNIB), those with learning disabilities (Mencap) and complexly disabled people (Sense). Trans and non-binary people may also be disenfranchised where they may present differently to their ID or using a different name, being worried they will experience discrimination or not allowed access to their vote when at the polling station (Mermaids, LGBT Foundation).  

After the May 2023 elections, the Electoral Commission recommended that there needs to be increased awareness of the support available to disabled voters to increase accessibility, a review to increase forms of accepted voter ID, and improved access to the free Voter Authority Certificate, amongst other recommendations.  

Although the availability of the Voter Authority Certificate means it can be argued there is still free access to voting, which can be seen as in line with Article 3, Protocol 1, HRA it is clear that there is low awareness of the certificate. The Electoral Commission’s report in May 2023 shows that whilst more than 250,000 people were estimated to need a free Voter certificate, only 89,500 people applied for one.

There are significant barriers to voting freely in the United Kingdom, particularly for marginalised groups through physical accessibility, lack of accessible materials and lack of awareness of both electoral information and for Voter ID and the Voter Authority Certificate. Individuals who are under the care of the state and in psychiatric inpatient environments must be given more support to access their vote. Ultimately, it is crucial that barriers are reduced in the UK by the support of public bodies and that those who are in positions who require adaptations in are further supported with their ability to vote in the General Election this July and into the future allowing them to support the UK’s democratic process. 

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