When carrying out research to help us produce this website, we asked people to tell us about what barriers they felt there were to supporting someone to vote or get involved in politics. The responses we received from people indicated the following three key practice areas: advocacy, capacity and bias.
A large part of the role of supporting someone is about advocacy. People can be unsure about advocacy, and see it as something that is done by an external and independent person. This can – and sometimes should – be the case.
However, when we support people we are inevitably advocating for them all the time. This might be by recognising that they are ill and should see a doctor, or that they like to be outside when the weather is warm and making sure that this happens. There are many different ways in which we advocate for the people we support on a daily basis.
It is important to help people understand the context of their lives and the things that affect them. Helping them discover the many ways in which politics affects them is a key part of this.
Letting people know that they have a democratic right to have a say in how the country is run and how decisions are made is very important.
It is also important to recognise that voting is only one of many activities that allow everyone to be involved in the political process.
You may be aware of an issue that is affecting a person you support, but they might find it difficult to raise this. For example, they could be affected by the proposed closure of a local service. They may not be able to tell people, like councillors or MPs, how they feel about this.
As someone who supports that person and advocates for them, there are things that you could do to help. For example, you could write to their local politicians or MP asking for a meeting. You could go to this meeting with the person you support and present concerns on their behalf. If the person does not want to, or cannot, say themselves how they feel about this, they can still make a powerful contribution simply by being present at this meeting.
It is OK for you, or other advocates, family or friends, to tell politicians and other people about how things affect a person on their behalf. You should always do this with them if you can.
The issue of mental capacity, and how it affects voting, is often an area of great concern and confusion for anyone looking to support someone with learning disabilities to get more involved in politics.
We hope in this section to explain what the law does and doesn’t say about mental capacity, so that you are able to feel more confident about providing people with the right support.
People with a learning disability have the same right to vote as anyone else. Like all other voters, they must be over 18 years old, and must meet the nationality and residence criteria laid out by the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission states that the person must also not have a legal incapacity to vote. The use of the term “incapacity” here can cause confusion. A lack of mental capacity is not the same as legal incapacity. Someone with learning disabilities has the right to vote regardless of their mental capacity.
Some people have expressed concerns that the person they support may not have clear ideas about who they choose to vote for, or that they will simply pick someone “they like the look of”. (In fact this could probably apply to a lot of voters!) A person can choose who they want to vote for by any criteria they like. It is not up to anyone else to judge if their reasons for choosing someone are valid or not. Equally, the decision over whether someone votes or not must be theirs and theirs alone. Carers and support workers are not allowed to make decisions on behalf of the person they care for when it comes to voting.
Voting by proxy is when somebody appoints someone else to cast their vote for them. Section 29 of the Mental Capacity Act (2005) says that a person can only appoint a proxy if they have the mental capacity to do so. Whether voting in person or by proxy, however, the vote should be cast for the candidate that the person with learning disability chooses and no one else.
Bias and influence
When we surveyed people about supporting others to take part in the political process, one of the key concerns was about bias. It was felt that worries about bias and influencing people could mean some people were reluctant to support others with activities like voting.
It is good to recognise these concerns and it can be extremely helpful to have a team approach to supporting people with these activities where possible. This allows people to discuss their worries and concerns about bias and influence, and agree a way of working as a team.
To avoid bias when supporting people with activities like this, remember that your main role is to support someone to find and obtain relevant information that is readily available to everyone. However, the key thing to remember is that your job is to present this existing information to the people you support and not to influence their decision.
It is the people producing the information (in this case, political parties and candidates) who need to be making it accessible to everybody, and this is still often not the case, which can make things harder.
As well as producing this website, a key aim of Every Vote Counts is to work with election officials, political parties, politicians and others to highlight the importance of making their information open and accessible to everyone. We have created an area of this website to help politicians with this. See Information for politicians.
The easier their information is to access, the more people they can reach. It is their job to get their message across. If you remember that your key role is simply to present existing information to people, then there are many ways you can support people with activities, including voting.