Article 3 of the First Protocol: Right to free elections

The right to free elections is crucial to establishing and maintaining the foundations of an effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law.

By agreeing to Article 3 of the First Protocol, the UK has undertaken to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

Right to vote

This gives a right to individuals to vote. Needless to say, it is a right and not a privilege.  This right is closely linked to the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as it guarantees respect for pluralism of opinion in a democratic society.

The right to vote is not absolute – conditions can be imposed so long as they pursue a legitimate aim, are proportionate and do not thwart the free expression to the opinion of the people in choosing the legislature.

Conditions may be set on the right to vote such as minimum age requirements and, in some circumstances, residency.  But such restrictions cannot impair the very essence of the right to vote.  In particular, disenfranchisement is a very serious matter and it will require a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction of disenfranchising someone and the conduct and circumstances of the person being disenfranchised.  A blanket, automatic restriction that applies regardless of individual circumstances will be in breach of the right to vote.

The right to stand for elections

There is also a right to stand for election to the legislature, which includes a right to sit as a member of the legislature once elected.  There can be restrictions on who is eligible to stand for election but eligibility procedures must contain sufficient safeguards to prevent arbitrary decisions.
 

Case study - Prisoner votes

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled (on four occasions) that the current blanket ban on prisoners voting is unlawful and the UK need to grant some voting rights – but to whom is for our Parliament to decide.  In theory this could mean the smallest of concessions, for example, enfranchising those serving less than six months or convicted of non-violent offences.  

What the Court hasn’t done is direct the UK to give every rapist and murderer in the land a ballot slip.  The Government also hasn’t listened to its own cross-party parliamentary committee which recommended the vote to prisoners serving less than 12 months.