Can peers vote?

Lord Norton

Baroness Murphy’s post reminds me of a question frequently raised in discussions about the Lords.  Can peers vote in parliamentary elections?  The answer is no.  Or rather, members of the House of Lords cannot vote in parliamentary elections.  Prior to 1999 it was held in common law that it was the status of being a peer that precluded one being able to vote.  Since 1999 (and the House of Lords Act) it is the fact of being a member of the second chamber that prevents one from voting.  Hereditary peers who are excluded from membership of the House are able, under the terms of the 1999 Act, to vote. 

Members of the Lords can vote in all other (European, local etc) elections.  Some members of the House object to being prevented from voting in elections to the House of Commons and are pressing for a change in the law. 

As various observers take pleasure in pointing out, members of the Lords – in being denied the right to vote – are in the same category as people under the age of 18, aliens, prisoners, and persons of unsound minds. 

10 comments for “Can peers vote?

  1. 07/05/2008 at 1:35 pm

    And, actually much more to the point, the rest of us where the Lords are concerned.

    I am sorry I couldn’t resist that, even as someone who is by no means in favour of democratising the upper chamber for the sake of (or allowing children to vote–though I can see no decent argument to deny prisoners).

  2. ladytizzy
    07/05/2008 at 2:53 pm

    Can you clarify what is meant by people of unsound minds? As I understand it those who are ‘learning disabled’, a class with a very wide range of abilities, have been enfranchised, as have patients in mental hospitals except those detained under order of the Mental Health Act.

    I am highlighting this since I have repeatedly asked the local authority, responsible for a relative who is mentally handicapped, whether she has been registered and who is responsible for her proxy vote. She has no ability whatsoever to decide for herself and the LA has not bothered to answer my letters, phone calls, or emails.

    An obvious concern is that vulnerable people are likely to have their vote stolen, and those have the mental age below that of the minimum voting age should not be enfranchised.

    Also, how difficult would it be to emboss voting slips with Braille?

    A couple of other burning questions: why are pencils used to vote rather than ink, and what happens to voting slips after the statutory one year and a day holding period?



  3. Stuart
    07/05/2008 at 3:33 pm

    You really do know your stuff.

  4. Matt
    08/05/2008 at 8:58 am

    Lord Norton – would you favour members of the upper chamber having a vote at a general election? Do you miss the experience of being able to yourself?

  5. baronessmurphy
    08/05/2008 at 2:38 pm


    Yes you are right that actually the vast majority of people with mental health problems and learning disabilities can and should vote and I am delighted to hear you are fighting that corner for someone. Most of the party literature could be done in easy read versions such as the Department of Health puts out for people with LD.It is only those who are currently detained under the MHAct who lose their vote, and to be honest, I have rarely been asked about the possibility of voting by detained patients, they are usually worrying about far more personal things at that stage of their illness. But it is usual when an election is on for staff in psychiatric units to help individuals who can vote to get to the polls if at all possible.

    And I would like a vote in the general election but quite see we already have a say in legislation as peers and maybe we should forego the privilege. But it’s an old custom that we lose the vote, I think probably it should be reinstated for peers.

  6. lordnorton
    09/05/2008 at 8:57 am

    Just on Chris Dornan’s point and Matt’s question. I am not in favour of members of the second chamber being elected (I shall be happy to explain why in some detail) and I am content for us not to have to elect other parliamentarians. I know what some of my colleagues argue, but given that I have a voice in the second chamber I am not persuaded there is a compelling case for me to vote in elections to the House of Commons. If a peer wishes to pursue a matter as a constituent (rather than use their position as a peer to pursue a matter of self-interest) s/he can raise it with the local MP: the fact of not having a vote in parliamentary elections has no bearing.

    ladytizzy: answers to your questions will follow. I have already been pursuing one of the issues you touch upon: voting by blind people and ensuring voting slips are accessible to them. It is an issue raised with me by another reader to the blog.

    Stuart: Thanks. I try.

  7. ladytizzy
    10/05/2008 at 3:25 am

    Many thanks for your heartening replies. My promised letter to Lord Norton (back in March!) will be on its way soon and I will write separately to Baroness Murphy, if only for your files. They won’t be written in green ink.

    All peers, hereditary or life, in the House or not, should all be able to vote; it is not a privilege, it’s a right. Not too sure on prisoners. By acting against the state then it would follow they lose state rights but these seem to be regularly superseded by the Human Rights Act. Bit unclear on this one.

    Finally, back to an earlier post on voting at 16 or 18. I did comment but it got lost. The recent elections gave us two 18yo councillors. I wonder if their age had been know whether they would have got the necessary votes and, if the age is lowered to 16, whether they’ll miss some sessions due to exams or other pressing teenage issues. I would like the age discrimination laws waived for election candidates.

  8. lordnorton
    10/05/2008 at 2:58 pm

    As promised, a reply to ladytizzy on her earlier points. On those of unsound mind, the position was governed by common law but has now been prescribed by statute. The law has been variously changed and under the Representation of the People Act 2000 only ‘offenders’ detained in mental hospitals are not permitted to vote. Under the Act, those who are resident in mental institutions but who are not detained offenders are permitted to vote.

    On providing voting slips in braille for blind voters, ballot papers need to be the same (otherwise there is the danger of recognising how particular voters or a certain category of voters have voted). However, there is now statutory provision for each polling station to have a ‘tactile’ voting device that enables a blind voter to cast a vote in secrecy.

    All ballot papers, and other materials relating to an election (counterfoils etc) are sent to the Clerk of the Crown, who is under a statutory duty to retain them for a period of one year and then ‘shall cause them to be destroyed’. The particular pencils (more akin to crayons than a normal pencil) used in polling stations are utilised as far as I am aware for the purpose of ensuring that it is an indelible mark.

    On ladytizzy’s most recent post, the position of prisoners not being able to vote is under review on the grounds that it is a blanket ban. The courts have not held that certain prisoners cannot be denied the right to vote. The Government has yet to complete its review.

  9. ladytizzy
    10/05/2008 at 4:32 pm

    “…In practice ballot papers are simply bundled-up into paper sacks and transported to a warehouse in Hayes, Middlesex, for the statutory period of one year and one day. Following the 1987 general election, I reported on the disposal of the 7,000 sacks of this ‘low-grade confidential waste’ for a national newspaper. The papers were transported by truck from the Hayes warehouse to be incinerated in the North London Waste Authority plant at Enfield. During that process we witnessed dozens of sacks splitting and many hundreds of spent ballot papers spilling for all to see. This adds weight to the conspiracy theory that security around the election documents is very lax, and that the vote-tracing procedure has been used to identify people voting for fringe candidates… (David Northmore, Author of The Freedom Of Information Handbook),,-1051,00.html

    Hope this has ceased to continue!

    Thanks for the info, Lord Norton. One last (maybe) question: what is the reason for ex-pats to be allowed to vote in a GE for 15 years? Why not five, or for life, or not at all? Is this in line with the EU or peculiar to the UK?


  10. lordnorton
    12/05/2008 at 11:22 am

    ladytizzy: I suspect the classification for the disposal of the voting material has not changed, though I may pursue the issue of how secure it is. The reason it attracts the conspiracy theorists is, as shown in the material you link to, that it is possible to identify how people have voted from the registration numbers on the voting stubs. The reason the numbers are recorded is in case of legal challenge, but there are so few cases involved that there is a case for getting rid of the requirement to record the registration numbers. That way, voting will be truly secret with no way of establishing how anyone has voted. Even conspiracy theorists may be stumped then.

    On ex-pats voting, the number of years of eligibility after emigrating is an arbitrary one. It was initially established as five years under the Representation of the People Act 1985 but then later extended. Various proposals for variation of the length have been made, as well as suggestions to get rid of the provision. In practice, it does not make a great difference as relatively few expatriates bother to exercise their right to vote.

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