Enfranchising our patients

Blog kindly submitted by Dr Jonathan Mills and Dr Unniparambath Prabhakaran.

With the recently held (and somewhat unexpected) general election in June, this provided an opportunity for us to reflect that as GPs, how we encourage our patients to exercise their democratic rights, and are we aware just who can vote?

Whilst voting can be straightforward for many people who have registered, as GPs we should be mindful of those who are disenfranchised by the very nature of difficulty getting to the polling booth or posting a vote. This is particularly the case for those in care homes, hospital and psychiatric units, where physical health problems restrict participation, or the locked nature of some of the wards serves as a barrier to exercising the right to vote. In the 2010 General Election, psychiatric inpatients were half as likely to register to vote. If registered, they were again half as likely to vote compared to the general population (McIntyre et al., 2012). The majority of those unregistered were not aware of their eligibility to vote or the registration process.

Historically, inpatients in psychiatric settings were disenfranchised in UK general elections as ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots’ under the Representation of the People Act 1949, before the electoral Administration Act (2006) granted psychiatric inpatients a right to vote whether they were informally admitted or detained under the civil sections of the Mental Health Act 1983 (MHA). Thus psychiatric patients have a right to vote personally, or by proxy, and should be encouraged to register to vote and exercise that right should they choose. For clarity, patients who are sectioned under civil sections of the MHA (this also includes prisoners remanded to hospital under the MHA on Sections 35, 36 or 48) are entitled to vote (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2015). However, prisoners detained after conviction of a criminal offence who are ordered to hospital be the courts and those who have impaired capacity (which includes dementia) do not in themselves demonstrate legal incapacity to vote, and these individuals should be supported if they intend to register and vote (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2015).

A GP may have patients in the community under care of psychiatric teams, subject to mental health legislation (such as Community Treatment Orders) who are also entitled to vote, despite restrictions to their liberty such orders may pose.

Similarly, patients who are homeless can make a ‘declaration of local connection’ should they spend a significant period of time at a particular address or location. Those in residential and nursing homes may lack the physical ability to go to a polling station, or even to physically mark a ballot paper, but again this should not be a bar to choosing their representatives. Care homes should be encouraged to help residents register and vote. Where someone is unable to vote but wishes to do so, remind them they can nominate a proxy to enable them. As GPs, we work under the premise that adults have capacity until proven otherwise, we should also work under the assumption that patients have capacity to register and vote.

McIntyre J, Yelamanchili V, Naz S, Khwaja M, Clarke M. Uptake and knowledge of voting rights by adult in-patients during the 2010 UK general election. The Psychiatrist 2012; 36: 126-130

Royal College of Psychiatrists, Voting rights for mental health patients, (2015), available via http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mediacentre/pressreleases2015/votingrights.aspx Last accessed 18/7/2017