One hundred years ago, in 1918, women got the vote. Or rather, wealthy married women over the age of 30 got the vote. It would be another ten years until universal suffrage was passed, giving every adult citizen in the UK the right to vote. But while universal suffrage has been around for 90 years, we’re far from a place where every eligible citizen in the UK is actually able or inclined to vote.
2017’s snap election saw a record number of people register to vote. One million extra people registered to vote between 18th April and 7th June 2017, leading to a total of 46.9 million registered votes in 2017. But that still leaves million of people who were eligible to vote who did not register.
Of course, there are a myriad of reasons for this. Voter disenfranchisement is high, and while registering to vote is easy if you have access to the internet, 20% of UK households don’t have an internet connection. To help combat these problems, many people are calling for automatic registration for all eligible citizens in the UK.
But that doesn’t address one significant yet often overlooked reason why people don’t register to vote: and that’s the need for a fixed, permanent address. While the need to own property in order to vote was abolished with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, UK voting laws still require people to provide their address when they register to vote.
“It is estimated that over 300,000 people in the UK are homeless — which means 300,000 potentially eligible voters are being locked out of the system.”
At first glance, this seems sensible. After all, requiring people to provide their address when they register to vote can help eliminate voter fraud, and make it easier for the Electoral Commission to track exactly who is and who isn’t registered to vote. But the requirement for a permanent address means homeless people struggle to register to vote.
It is estimated that over 300,000 people in the UK are homeless — which means 300,000 potentially eligible voters are being locked out of the system, with no way of exercising their right to active citizenship. While governments are debating how to ‘solve’ the homelessness epidemic, the very people who are affected are being given no say in those governments. Combine that with the fact that homelessness disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ people, who are already struggling to make their voices heard within politics, and it’s clear that this is a real problem. As homelessness continues to rise (which it likely will under a capitalist Tory government), we all need to strive to make this basic democratic right accessible to all — not just those who are already powerful.
Of course, in the government’s eyes they already do enough to enable homeless people to vote. The rules say that if you don’t have a permanent home, then you can register at an address where you spend a significant amount of time. That could be a shelter, a library, or any place where you sleep or spend a large part of your day.
“A simple task for many, but a huge undertaking for someone who is homeless.”
The problem with this is that in order to do this, you need to fill out a ‘Declaration of local connection’ form. Given the fact that most homeless people don’t have access to food, shelter, or washing facilities, let alone the internet and a printer, this isn’t as helpful as it might first seem. Whilst you can pick up copies of these forms from your local electoral registration office, it’s understandable that many homeless people might be uncomfortable doing this, either because of shame or negative experiences with local authorities in the past. All of this is assuming that people know the rules and regulations around registering to vote while homeless in the first place.
“Under the new rules, anyone without a permanent home cannot register online but must print out a “local connection” form and return it to their local council,” explains John Webbe, Manager for Emmaus Potteries, a charity that helps homeless people. “A simple task for many, but a huge undertaking for someone who is homeless.”
Add into this the new proposition to require ID at polling stations, and things are just going to get harder for homeless people.
“Even if homeless people manage to register to vote, they’ll need ID to actually cast their vote on the day, which has often become lost in the period of their lives which resulted in them becoming homeless,” continues Webbe.
“One hundred years ago, we took the first steps towards universal suffrage. Now, we need to continue the march.”
Of course, it’s one thing to make it possible for homeless people to vote — it’s another entirely to encourage them to use their vote. When you’re homeless, particularly if you’ve been homeless for a substantial period of time or are struggling with issues such as addiction, it is likely that registering to vote is not your primary concern. Feeding yourself and potentially your children is your concern. Finding somewhere to sleep is your concern. Staying safe on the streets is your concern.
“The vulnerable in society are the ones most disadvantages by the massive cuts in local government funding with the decimation of the social care sector that could have prevented them from ending up homeless,” says Webbe. “And these are the very ones who are being marginalised by the Government’s new voting rules and therefore have less of a say.”
Until we do more, therefore, to not only make registering to vote without a fixed address easier and more accessible, and make it widely known that not only are you able to vote while homeless, but also that your vote matters, then we’re going to continue to neglect a substantial part of the vulnerable voting population.
So, here at The Nopebook, we’re joining the fight to make voting accessible for all. One hundred years ago, we took the first steps towards universal suffrage. Now, we need to extend the march for voting rights to include homeless people.
This article is part of The Nopebook’s #Next100Years campaign, which asks what steps we can take for equality in the next 100 years.