The right to vote is fundamental to our status as citizens. It enables us to have influence over political representatives and policy makers. Denying this right to certain people thus legitimises the silencing of their political voices and undermines their claims to citizenship.
The right to vote is a long-standing human right. Some earlier interpretations of this right (eg General Comment 25 of the UN Human Rights Committee in 1996) suggested that it could be denied to people on the grounds of their ‘mental disability’. Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), however, now makes it clear that States Parties must grant political rights, including the right to vote, to all people with disabilities and ensure that they have the opportunity to enjoy them ‘on an equal basis with others’. Despite this, in many countries people with disabilities are still denied the right to vote and so continue to be locked out of democracy and prohibited from exercising their political rights.
The Venice Commission (the European Commission for Democracy through Law) is an influential group of constitutional law experts which could help to persuade States that depriving people of the right to vote because of disability is unacceptable. This body is due to consider this matter when it meets on 14 October 2011. However, it is by no means certain that it will adopt this approach. Current proposals before the Venice Commission include guidance which authorises denying the vote to people with disabilities who, according to a judge, ‘lack proper judgment’.
It is important that influential bodies, such as the Venice Commission, take account of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and send out the clear message that it is never permissible to stop a person voting because of their disability. Systems which legitimise depriving people with ‘mental disabilities’ of their vote, on the basis of a court decision, discriminate unfairly against people with disabilities. Nobody else is required to go to court (a process which is likely in itself to be distressing) to try to persuade a judge, possibly with very different political and other perspectives from their own, that they have ‘proper judgement’ before they are allowed to vote. The effort and expense that would be required by such a system should instead be invested in ensuring that people with disabilities have a genuine opportunity to vote – including ensuring that their ability to exercise their political rights is not limited by inaccessible polling stations or information and that they are able to have appropriate assistance of their own choosing where required.
The Save the Vote campaign aims to persuade the Venice Commission to adopt a position which is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to condemn any laws which legitimise depriving people with disabilities of their right to vote. The campaign, which is co-ordinated by the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre, has already secured the support of many international and European disability, human rights and electoral organisations, including ENIL. However, we are keen to gather as much momentum as possible, including at national and local levels. If democracy and disability equality are issues which concern you, please have a look at the campaign website and consider adding your voice to ours by joining the campaign and taking one of the types of action suggested there.
You can Save the Vote!