Despite the fact some women have been able to vote for 100 years, as women we cannot be complacent with our democracy. Voting is a right every women, no matter their circumstances, should have – in the next century we need to make this a reality.
I remember talking to a young woman at my hairdressers in the run up to a recent election; she said she wasn’t going to bother voting because she didn’t see her vote as mattering. I feel sad that many young women don’t feel part of democracy or that it is relevant to them. This, as we saw last June, has begun to change, but there is still more we can all do.
First, we need to motivate young women to register to vote and understand the importance their vote has on deciding not only who governs this country, but also who makes important local decisions on their doorstep. Voting is the one occasion we all become decision makers in our communities. There are many women over the last 100 years who have helped shape the country we live in today by voting, including my grandmother who was born just before women first gained the right, and by voting we continue their work.
Second, we know that carers and those they care for often experience barriers as described in our recent ‘Elections for Everyone’ report. No one should feel unsafe or uncomfortable in a polling station, be unable to vote in secret or be turned away from voting, so it’s disappointing that we continue to hear this happening. Extending the circumstances for appointing an emergency proxy to include those who have unforeseen caring responsibilities and making all polling stations accessible to everyone are important steps in the right direction.
Another barrier is the ability to register to vote anonymously. This is the process whereby someone can register without having their name or address disclosed publically. Being a survivor of domestic abuse should never deprive a person of the right to have their say at elections. Very soon hundreds of women will find it easier to register without compromising their safety because a change in law will see midwifes and refuge managers, as well as others, able to attest an application to be on the register anonymously.
Next, we need to make the act of registering to vote as easy as possible, and this is an area where good progress has been made. You can now registering to vote online and I am keen to remind people that it only takes five minutes. But some groups in society still remain less likely to be registered, such as home movers, renters and students, which include a lot of women.
A recent survey found women under 34 are least likely to be satisfied with the current electoral registration system. Therefore it’s not surprising that nearly a third of women support automatic voter registration where you are registered when applying for your national insurance number, for example. This is another improvement we would like to see.
Finally, we know there are reports of incidences where women might be coerced or told how to vote, or made to use their postal vote in a particular way – this is simply wrong. At the Commission we are committed to overcoming this and encouraging women, particularly from communities where we know there is a higher risk of electoral fraud, to understand that their vote is their vote and their vote only.
The Commission is calling for action to be taken to break down these barriers and we’ll continue to work with the UK’s governments and others to ensure that the registering and voting process is as accessible as it can be.
This centenary is a great opportunity for each of us to talk to our female friends, family members and colleagues about voting and encourage them to register. I am really impressed by how engaged some of the women I meet are, whether that’s at school visits where I get some really tricky questions about proportional representation or chatting with my young nieces who already have very clear views about some politicians, but as the example I used earlier shows there are still women out there who don’t vote or know their vote matters and we want to change this.
Claire Bassett is Chief Executive at the Electoral Commission