Carla Carlisle on voting rights and wrongs

While the country was sitting under an invisible cloud of volcanic ash and a General Election was erupting on our TV screens, spring arrived. I say ‘spring’ but it feels more like the stanza from Robert Frost’s poem Two Tramps in Mud Time:

The sun was warm but the
wind was chill.
You know how it is with an
April day
When the sun is out and the
wind is still,
You’re one month on in the
middle of May.
But if you so much as dare
to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back
in the middle of March.

It’s the latest spring I can remember. Although the daffodils and fritillaries are now performing their vernal enchantment, they sure took their time. Other signs of the season were more punctual: the peacock elders are showing off their new tails while their adolescent sons practice strutting their abbreviated plumage. It takes three years for the peaboys to become peacocks, the birdland version of waiting for the keys to the car.

And now I have only one ewe left to lamb, an elderly girl who has decided to spend her confinement stretched out like Madame Récamier. The vet diagnosed a mineral deficiency called cerebrocortical necrosis and gave her a series of injections, but she’s still reluctant to budge. I have my coffee with her in the mornings, a glass of wine in the evenings. We sit in silence like an old married couple.

Worrying about my ewe focuses my gnawing sense that things are not going to come out right in the end. It’s not the feeling of anxiety that a volcano thousands of miles away can bring the world to a standstill. The knot in my stomach stems from the feeling that a more general necrosis has swept
the land-moral? mental? its symptoms obvious but undiagnosed. It’s the Everyman chorus on Today, repeating ‘They’re all the same. Nothing ever changes. All as bad as each other.’

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Broadcasters call it voter cynicism, a reaction to the Parliamentary expenses scandal, but I think it’s something else. There are millions who don’t know how to vote and, like being unable to read, it’s not an easy thing to admit. If you don’t know how to vote, it’s easier to say that it’s not worth voting at all.

We should have seen this coming. What’s at stake is the soul of democracy. It’s not enough to say that the House of Commons should be reformed and reduced in size. We also need to simplify voting, to make it more accessible. It could be as simple as giving everybody who buys
a mobile phone a voter-registration form. As soon as it’s filled in, the SIM card is activated.

Millions of voters would be added to the electoral roll, all with an address, bank account, postcode. Instead of a letter, a voting card with a swipe strip could be sent in the post and all they’d have to do is show up with it on Election Day. Don’t have a mobile? Hand out voter-registration forms at Tesco, Boots, the Post Office, the GP’s surgery. Voting should be as uncomplicated as buying milk.

Call me the last of the True Believers, but I grew up in a world where half the population was denied the right to vote. If you were black, registering to vote in Mississippi was a mortal danger and many men and women died trying. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed all that, and then the South changed.

Most mornings, I chew over what’s wrong with the world. I have my doubts about any Government’s ability to set it right, but democracy is a fragile and stubborn flower. All that keeps it alive are the folks who vote. The first job of the new Parliament should be to grow the vote.

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