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Would You Sell Your Vote For £750?


poll2A question for you:

“Would you sell your right to vote for £750?’

No? I thought not.

Nor would I.

Nor, I suspect would the thousands of British voters who, on Thursday night, had the doors to the Polling Stations slammed in their faces up and down the country, after using best efforts, for most of the day, to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Their extreme outrage and noble indignation was piteous to behold.

It seems fairly clear that these unfortunate Britons, disenfanchised by administrative incompetence, in more than 14 constituencies and in 8 major cities including, London, Sheffield and Birmingham, do have a legal right to claim compensation.

Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights records the individual’s right to participate in fair and free elections ‘under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature’.

That would at least seem to presuppose that you get let into the Polling Station before closing time and handed a ballot paper.

This principle is enshrined as a ‘Convention right’ by section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998 , section 6 of which provides that ‘it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right’.

An electoral law that dictates that people can only vote at a single location, and only before 10pm, presupposes that the public authorities whose job it is to ensure the system works will provide enough staff and resources to ensure that all who wish to vote can do so. If, as on this occasion, they fail so miserably to do so, they are liable for infringing the ‘Convention right’ of thousands of would-be voters who, in spite of their best efforts, were unable to vote.

So far, so good.

The question is what level of compensation would it be proper and appropriate to award to those voters for the flagrant breach of their rights that they have thus suffered?

It would have been interesting, if not instructive, to put this question to the drenched and serried ranks of anguished voters whose right to exercise their vote on Thursday was so effectively thwarted by grievous maladministration

…I doubt that ‘up to £750′ would have been a typical answer!

(Incidentally, the annual budget of the Electoral Commission is about £25 million. What do you think they spend it on?).

Eminent, if informal, legal opinion (eg Geoffrey Robertson QC, Lord Pannick), has apparently, upon journalistic enquiry, put it variously at ‘up to £750′ or ‘at least £750′.

Surely, the loss of the right to vote is worth more than that, if it is worth anything?

The opportunity to vote, once stolen, is irretrievable. Surely, one’s vote is priceless.

People have died for the right to vote. People still are dying in Iraq.

That a British voter should be prevented from voting in any election is unacceptable. That it should happen in 2010 during the most momentous election in living memory, in a country described by John Bright, in 1865, as ‘the Mother of Parliaments’, and at a time when the British military is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq to uphold the principle of democratic rule, is a bitter irony of the kind to which it seems Britain has now become almost impervious.

The impromptu witterings of the Returning Officers button-holed for ‘News and Ten’ and the embarrassed excuses of the Electoral Commission only served to intensify the outrage.

If these voters decide to pursue claims for compensation, as surely they must, the question ‘what price the vote?’ will soon fall to be judicially decided.

I, for one, hope that the judges will err on the side of outrageous and punitive generosity. Perhaps in this way the message that certain things like the right to vote are sacrosanct will be clearly heard, as will the message that a half-hearted and complacent approach to discharging one’s public duty is no longer acceptable and, anyway, does not pay.

Section 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides that compensation for breach of a Convention right should be decided using the approach established by Article 41 of the Convention itself, namely the principle of ‘just satisfaction’.

The problem is that the European Court of Human Rights is surprising mean in awarding damages for ‘non-pecuniary’ loss such as the mental anguish suffered by those voters who were so rudely disenfranchised last Thursday.

In its Practice Direction it declares that assessing  ’non-pecuniary damages’ for ‘non-material harm’ does not lend itself to precise calculation.

However, it does go on to invite applicants who wish to be compensated for non-pecuniary damage ‘to specify a sum which in their view would be equitable’.

Okay. Right.

I have to say that if, on Election Day, I had tried, throughout the day, to cast my vote and had thereafter joined the queue at 7pm and queued in the pouring rain for a further 3 hours only to have the Polling Station doors slammed in my face at 10pm, or told that I could not vote becuase they had run out of ballot papers, I would not be thinking in terms of £750. More like £750,000!

If any court had the gall to award ‘up to £750′ I would be filing appeal papers with the European Court that same hour.

For shame, England! For shame!

One Comment

  1. If only we allowed people to sell their votes, then perhaps we’d know how much a vote is ‘worth’? I’d suggest that many people would willingly part with their vote beforehand for much less than £750.

    And, as a taxpayer who ultimately underwrites the compensation paid to those who didn’t get to vote, my view is that £750 is too high anyway.

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