Big Issue North vendors excluded from opportunity to vote

Democracy should be for all - but our vendors face numerous challenges

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On Wednesday 22 May, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the UK will go to the polls to vote for their next Member of Parliament – and the next Prime Minister – on 4 July. But for Big Issue North vendors, and others like them, this will be a far from simple process.

Anyone who will be 18 or over on 4 July – even if they are 17 now – can register to vote if they are a UK, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen. For those facing homelessness and other forms of marginalisation, however, this fundamental right can be inaccessible.

You do not need a permanent address to vote – but the process for registering to vote while experiencing homelessness is complex. First, citizens must contact their local Electoral Registration Office, who then send a form to an address where they can access it. They must fill this in with information including a UK address where they have lived in the past, then return it to the Electoral Registration Office.

Big Issue North vendors can arrange to have these forms sent to one of our offices. But for others who are sleeping rough and do not have access to any address at which they can receive a form, or who predominantly sleep in hostel accommodation at which they cannot securely receive private mail, this is far more challenging.

The requirement to fill out a form also excludes those who cannot read or write – a demographic that is disproportionately affected by homelessness. Research by Homeless Link found that at least 50% of adults experiencing homelessness have inadequate reading and writing skills.

For those without access to the internet, it can also be challenging for people to access information about how to register to vote while homeless. Due to the chaotic nature of homelessness, and the fact that some people have been homeless for a long time, it may also be difficult to provide a former address, and even harder to provide proof thereof.

Voters must also now bring photo ID with them to the polling station. Acceptable forms of ID include a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth passport, a driving license valid in the UK, a Blue Badge, one of several travel passes and a PASS card, among others.

But during our last vendor audit, we found that many of our vendors do not have any form of photo identification. Those without any valid ID can apply for a Voter Authority Certificate for free, but to do so, they must supply their name, address, date of birth and National Insurance number. If they do not have an NI number or do not know it, they can provide an alternative form of proof of identity, including a birth certificate, bank statement or utility bill, or ask someone to confirm your identity. While Big Issue North vendors can ask office staff to confirm their identity, this creates obvious barriers for others experiencing homelessness, including a lack of bank account and, crucially, a lack of address. The official government website lists no acceptable alternative to a permanent address when applying for the Certificate.

Democracy must be for all, but this summer, thousands of people like our vendors – there are currently 169,000 adults experiencing homelessness in the UK – will be disenfranchised.

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