After my wife, Margaret Brown, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2018, the two of us made an effort to visit different social events where we could meet people in similar situations. In 2019, we attended a Dementia Forward social event at Northallerton Library.
During our discussion, the European Parliament elections – which were being held on 23 May – were mentioned. On the back of polling cards for such elections or referendums, is the following:
“If you are away or cannot go to the polling station on Thursday 23 May 2019 you can do one of the following:
Apply to vote by post … OR Apply to vote by proxy (this means someone else can vote on your behalf).”
Requesting a proxy vote
Having voted for over 40 years, we were aware of the voting procedures and so, on 16 May, a week prior to the European elections, Margaret sent the following email to the local Electoral Registration Office (ERO):
My name is Margaret Brown, please allow my husband, Derek James Brown to vote on my behalf in the European Parliament Elections on 23rd May.
I have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and I would like my husband to vote on my behalf at this and all future elections.
The following day, I received a phone call from a representative of the electoral office, where I explained that the only challenge Margaret faced was putting the ‘x’ on the polling card, not her ability to decide who to vote for.
Despite explaining I had power of attorney, I was told that due to her Alzheimer’s, she would be removed from the electoral register and I should not add her name to the electoral register when the next elections came around.
Laws on proxy voting for those with Alzheimer’s or other mental illnesses
Having explained Margaret’s situation to a member of the Dementia Forward staff, we were put in contact with Jillian Quinn, chief executive officer of Dementia Forward, who also contacted the ERO.
In response to our email, which was titled, “Proxy vote due to ill health”, we received the document, “Guidance on assisted applications in England and Wales”.
Within this document, were two clauses that particularly struck me, as they were grounds for Margaret to receive a proxy vote:
- Everybody who is eligible should be registered irrespective of any illness or disability they may have (Section 73 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 abolished common law restrictions that a person was subject to a legal incapacity to vote, and therefore to register, due to their mental capacity)
- The ERO does not have the expertise to determine whether a person has mental capacity or not
- There should be a presumption that a person has capacity
- Only the applicant, or a person to whom they have given power of attorney, can make the required declaration as part of an application for registration”
For the matter on power of attorney, I was referred to this clause:
“1.14 However, decisions on voting cannot be made on behalf of another person. Section 29(1) of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 states that: ‘Nothing in this Act permits a decision on voting at an election for any public office, or at a referendum, to be made on behalf of a person’.”
On the back of the polling card it says that “It is an offence to vote as a proxy for more than two people, unless you are their spouse, civil partner…” – demonstrating that it is OK for a husband to vote as a proxy for his wife.
Advice from Alzheimer’s Society on proxy voting for people with dementia
Alzheimer’s Society, the UK’s leading dementia charity, also provided some assistance with our situation. They referred me to their blog, “Dementia doesn’t change your right to vote on 6 May”, where it states that people with powers of attorney cannot vote on someone’s behalf but that anyone can appoint someone else to vote on their behalf.
This suggests that Margaret’s name should not be removed from the electoral register, as the ERO suggested, but that someone, other than me as her attorney, can vote on behalf of Margaret by proxy. As the Alzheimer’s Society blog says:
“You don’t need mental capacity to vote, you do need mental capacity to appoint a proxy”
Having received guidance from both Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Forward, I made one final request for Margaret to be added to the electoral register, and that I be her designated proxy voter.
Letter confirming Margaret’s proxy vote
As Alzheimer’s Society points out, “no one can be prevented from voting just because they have dementia”. It’s essential that this message is shared, so that those with Alzheimer’s have an equal voice to others. Local authorities have a responsibility, and a moral duty, to assist those with Alzheimer’s to register, and to make the polling stations accessible.
After much discussion with the ERO about whether Margaret had the mental capacity to vote, or to appoint a proxy, we received the following letter. There was no explanation as to why we had previously been told Margaret was being removed from the register:
Dear Margaret Brown,
Notice of AIlowance of a Proxy vote application
I am pleased to inform you that I have allowed your proxy application.
Details about your absent vote are listed below:
Absent vote Type: Proxy
For: Local Government, Parliamentary and European Elections
Until: Further Notice
Proxy: Derek James Brown
I have entered the person above onto my list of proxies.
If you require any further information or assistance with this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Jayne Preece (Electoral Services Officer)
The guidance for the Electoral Registration Officer clearly states:-
“The ERO does not have the expertise to determine whether a person has mental capacity or not” and “There should be a presumption that the person has capacity”.
The sad situation is that, as with many issues regarding people with mental impairment, the attitude is: refuse first and let them fight for their rights. In the end, when it comes to the question of mental capacity, society still says ‘no’, unless you are able to fight your corner.
Society needs to grow a heart.