Election season is most definitely upon us as we are bombarded on a daily basis with flyers, party political broadcasts, TV debates and the ups and downs of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

The UK local elections and the European Parliament elections take place on Thursday, 22 May 2014. The UK General Election must take place by no later than Thursday, 7 May 2015.   With the economy the way that it is, widespread concerns regarding job security, the general increased cost of living, house prices etc., ensuring that your vote counts in such elections may well be of much more importance to the average working person than previously.

In the UK, elections are held on working weekdays and no legislation exists to allow employees to take time off work to vote. UK workers spend an average of six and a half hours working each day. Add a lunch hour and a couple of hours travel time, and between nine and 10 hours of a person’s day are committed to their employer. Polling stations across the country will be open for 15 hours, from 7am until 10pm. Effectively, this means the UK’s entire working population must be squeezed through polling station doors within a five-hour window. With the added pressures of day-to-day life getting in the way, attending the polling station may prove difficult for many.

Therefore should UK employers be legally obliged to allow their employees time off (either paid or unpaid) to vote?  

In the US, the situation is different to that of the UK. Rules vary from state to state, but only 21 out of the 50 do not have a state law guaranteeing time off to vote. Others not only offer time off, but also paid leave. This avoids the pre and post-work crush, and presumably increases turnout.  Surely if such a system can be administered in the US, wouldn’t it be possible to implement in the UK?

Some, of course, may ask how this right could be policed here and of course there would be fears of abuse and concern in the business sector over the ever increasing flexible policies that employers must implement for workers. Many employers would raise that there is the opportunity for postal and proxy votes and workers should look to use these means as ways of ensuring that their vote is cast if it is of such importance to them. However such means do require forward planning and, again, the daily stresses of life in general could interfere with this.

Alternatively, could an employee who is refused time off to vote make a case against their employer for discrimination based on their political beliefs being a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010? Previous case law* suggests that whilst support of a political party does not in itself amount to a philosophical belief, a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine, such as socialism, free market capitalism might qualify.  Further, more recently the tribunal* found that an employee’s belief in ‘democratic socialism’ could amount to a philosophical belief for the purpose of bringing a discrimination claim. Here the Tribunal focussed very much on the claimant’s clear beliefs in the Labour party’s values, which was evidenced by the way he lived his life and his significant involvement in party activities over a prolonged period of time. The risk might be enough of a concern for many employers to think twice before simply applying a blanket policy of saying ‘no’ to requests for time off to vote.

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* Grainger plc & others v Nicolson 2010 IRLR 4 (EAT)

* Olivier v Department of Work and Pensions ET/1701407/2013 November 2013

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This blog is intended only as a synopsis of certain recent developments. If any matter referred to in this blog is sought to be relied upon, further advice should be obtained.