The right to free elections is protected Article 3, Protocol 1 of the Human Rights Act.

How might this right be relevant to my life?

The Human Rights Act protects our right to free elections. These elections must be held regularly, and you have to be able to vote in secret. Under our human rights law in the UK, voting is a right, not a privilege.

This right is very important as free elections are central to working democracies. Voting rights are also important to other human rights protected by the Human Rights Act including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The right to free elections includes:

  1. The right to vote. Voting allows you to have a say on which person or party wins an election. Voting is one of the most common ways for people to have their voice heard by people in power.
  2. The right to stand in elections to become a member of parliament or local government.

Can the right to free elections be restricted by a public official?

Yes – This right is a non-absolute right which means it can be limited or restricted in certain circumstances. For example, the government can decide what sort of system for elections we have and at what age we are able to vote or stand as a candidate in an election.

But, like all other non-absolute rights, if the government (or any public official) is going to limit the right to free elections, the restriction has to be:

Lawful

There must be a law which allows public officials to take that action or decision.

Legitimate 

The restriction has to be for a reason set out in the law. Restrictions could be imposed on this right in the interests of public safety, to prevent crime, to protect health or morals, or to protect the rights of others.

Proportionate 

The government or public body has to have thought about other things they could do, but there is no other way to protect you or other people. In other words, it must be the least restrictive option. This means that blanket, automatic restrictions that apply regardless of individual circumstances will be in breach of the right to vote.

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right:

This means public officials (including the government) should not interfere with the right to free elections, unless it is necessary, and they can show that this is the case.

To protect your right:

This means that the government and people working in public bodies should take ‘reasonable and appropriate’ measures to promote our right to free elections.

They must make sure that systems are in place so that free elections can take place at reasonable intervals by secret ballot. These must be under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature (i.e. the House of Commons, the Holyrood Parliament in Scotland, the Senedd in Wales, the Northern Irish Assembly and local government throughout the UK).

To fulfil your right:

When things go wrong, regarding the right to free elections, there should be an investigation and steps should be taken to try and stop the same thing happening again.

Wish’s Story: Empowering patients in a mental health hospital about the right to vote

Following a session with BIHR about human rights, an advocate at Wish (a user-led charity providing independent advocacy to women with mental health needs) decided to produce a leaflet for women detained in a mental health hospital about their right to take part in an upcoming general election. The advocate produced a leaflet about the rights of the women on the ward (detained under section 3 of the Mental Health Act) to take part in elections, protected by Article 3, Protocol 1 of the Human Rights Act.

The hospital staff were supportive of this information being circulated and as a result several of the women decided to register to vote for the general election.

Royal Star and Garter’s Story: Inviting canvassers into the care home

David, a member of staff in a care home in England arranged an afternoon for canvassers to visit the care home and talk to people living there. After attending a BIHR training session on the right to vote and the right to non-discrimination, David realised that although the care home did put measures in place to support people to vote (for example applying for postal ballots or supporting people to go to the polling booth) there was more that could be done. He noticed that canvassers, never actually visited to talk to people in the care home, they went door to door on the street, missing out the care home. This meant that people living there weren’t having the same opportunities to engage in free elections as they would have if they were living in their own homes. David arranged an afternoon and invited canvassers from various parties to come to the care home, deliver information and talk to people who wanted to be involved in these conversations.