Democracy Drive – What’s it all about?

Posted on 13th Jun 2024

With the general election coming up on 4 July you might be planning to head to your local polling station to cast your vote. Everyone in this country has the right to vote, but it’s not straightforward for some people.

Firstly you need an address to register to vote, and if you’re homeless there’s your first hurdle. There is a voter registration form for people with no fixed or permanent address, but people still need to provide an address where they spend a large part of their time. The form doesn’t include a return address, instead it has a link to the Electoral Commission website. After lots of scrolling and several clicks I found an address, but no clear information about whether this is the address to send the form, or if the form can be sent by email – clearly the preferable option for someone who can’t afford printing and postage.

The second hurdle is photo ID which you need to take to the polling station. For someone sleeping rough, a passport or driving license is unlikely to be a top priority. You can apply for a Voter Authority Certificate that can be used instead, but this can be complicated. People still need a National Insurance number or other documents to prove their identity, for example a birth certificate, bank statement and utility bill. For someone who doesn’t have any documents and doesn’t know their NI number it’s yet another obstacle.

Rough sleepers don’t have the same access to information as the rest of the population. How do you find out about political parties and what they stand for if you don’t have a TV, a phone, internet access or a letterbox to receive leaflets? Homeless people often don’t have a voice when it comes to democracy and so their situation can be overlooked by those in power.

Democracy Drive is a collaboration between WSUP and Woolwich Centre Library. The partnership makes sense. Both are community hubs in the centre of Woolwich welcoming and supporting local people, embracing local life and celebrating diversity and inclusion. The project aims to increase low voter turnout in Woolwich and the wider borough of Greenwich. The new voter ID rule is particularly affecting areas, like Woolwich, that have significant levels of recent immigration, and high levels of deprivation.

The majority of our service users (guests) have told us that they don’t engage democratically and don’t consider themselves to be active citizens. Many guests who are experiencing poverty and homelessness have low levels of literacy and poor digital skills, another barrier to involvement in the democratic system. Without a higher level of democratic engagement, our national and local governments will not reflect the people or the communities they serve.

Through the project, Woolwich Centre Library is helping people register to vote and apply for a Voter Authority Certificate by providing them with an address, taking their photograph, assisting them with the application forms and helping them to find out their National Insurance number.

As part of the project, we held art therapy workshops for WSUP guests around the theme of democracy. Local artist Lucia Colella led the workshops and created an art wall with another local artist Stuart Lee. The wall and the art from the workshops was showcased at an exhibition at Woolwich Works.

This project is about inclusion, developing imagination, hearing stories from people on the margins and creating a culture of positive, civil engagement in response to the growing divisions in our society. The workshops, along with support from the Library, have given people the skills and mindset to take part in the democratic process. We hope that other libraries and community organisations will adopt this model of partnership to improve voter turnout in areas of economic hardship.

The project was created by Patrick Malone, Project Manager for Woolwich Library and Andrea Leach, WSUP Trustee, and is funded by The Europe Challenge.

WSUP Communications Manager