Measures are needed to allow elderly inpatients to vote in general electionsBMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7130.552 (Published 14 February 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:552
Editor—Smith and Humphreys expressed concern over the eligibility of patients detained under the Mental Health Act to vote.1 We have similar worries about elderly patients losing their opportunity to vote.
We interviewed 248 patients (87% of the total geriatric inpatient population) on 10 geriatric wards in two Leeds hospitals within 14 days of last year's general election. A medical assessment was made of the patient's fitness to vote on the day. Patients were not interviewed if they were too unwell or were away from the ward. Altogether 190 were in hospital on the day of the election, of whom 115 were judged medically fit to vote. Only 19 voted, all by prearranged postal vote. Sixty six of the remainder stated that they would have voted had they been at home. Fifty eight patients were home at the time of the election. Of these, 46 were medically fit to vote and 28 did so, 15 by post and 13 at a polling station.
Postal votes for the election had to be registered by 14 April 1997; late applications could be made by 23 April if accompanied by a medical letter. There was no mechanism to vote after that date other than in person. Political parties used to visit long stay institutions to organise postal voting for their constituents, but this is no longer the practice. No provision was made locally to transport inpatients to polling stations. As a result we found that a much smaller proportion of inpatients voted (17%) than of patients who were at home at the time of the election (61%).
Better provision should be made for older patients to vote. Staff, managers, and the public should be aware of the system for registering postal votes, and better transport arrangements should be available. The mechanism for casting distant votes should be reassessed, and consideration should be given to extending the deadline for casting a postal vote, particularly for people over retirement age.
Elderly people remain politically active2 and, with demographic change, will form an increasing proportion of the electorate in the future. If the current situation does not change then many elderly people will be denied a fundamental democratic right.