Operation Traveller Vote: Here's how one organisation is encouraging people to vote
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities face more barriers than most when it comes to voting in a general election.
From the practicalities of registering to vote with no fixed address to issues of illiteracy and apathy, there are a host of hurdles that need to be overcome before making it to the polls on Thursday.
“As you would expect with all disadvantaged groups, there is a real sense of disenfranchisement within the GRT communities,” says Yvonne MacNamara, chief executive of the Traveller Movement charity, who lives in London.
“You hear the same arguments against getting involved in politics as you do on the news when they interview any other group: ‘what's the point, no one will listen to me anyway’.”
These concerns have led the Traveller Movement to launch a campaign aimed at getting GRT communities out to the polls, called Operation Traveller Vote.
The 2011 census – the first to include an ethnicity option for Gypsies and Travellers – revealed the community is the country’s smallest ethnic minority at 58,000 people. Add in the Roma population and the figure expands to between 80,000 and 300,000.
Although there are few figures tracking democratic participation in these communities, the Traveller Movement says turnout is lower for them than for other minority groups.
“We are trying to make politics more accessible and demonstrate that their voices do matter and they can influence decisions,” said MacNamara.
“We have published easy-to-read guides on the manifestos, explaining how the main parties policies can and will affect their daily lives.”
The organisation has also asked members of the community which issues matter to them and produced a list of questions for members of the GRT community to ask campaigners. Topics include site provision, services and health for the community.
Cassie Marie McDonagh, 28, from Watford, is an Irish traveller who will be voting for the first time on June 8. She says she feels ignored, and that some politicians pander to the “settled” communities’ fears by closing designated sites for roadside travellers.
But she added: “We can’t keep sitting back thinking ‘oh what's the point’. We need to start showing politicians they have to help us too and the best way to do that is to go out and vote.”
She says education is at the top of her agenda, particularly the government dropping support for Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.
“My brother, who is in high school, wouldn’t feel like he could go to school and talk about us and our way of life… It’s not right that he has to feel ashamed of our culture and who he is,” she said.
She believes Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month “gives our kids a way to speak about their culture and show the other children about how we truly are and not the myths they get told all the time. Stopping racism and prejudice starts in schools.”
As well as making the communities aware of the policies out there, the movement is also working to make the process of voting itself easier for GRT people.
This includes working with the Electoral Commission to cater to the specific needs of the GRT community.
“For roadside Travellers, it's about explaining that they can still vote even if they don't have a fixed address,” said MacNamara. “There is something called a ‘declaration of local connection’, which allows people with no fixed address but a local connection to vote.”
Another barrier is literacy. According to the Traveller Movement, around 80% of Travellers are illiterate. This raises obvious issues when it comes to registering to vote, reading campaign literature and the act of voting itself.
Those with difficulty reading or writing can either ask the presiding officer at the polling station or can take along someone over 18 who is eligible to vote to help.
It’s not just the Traveller Movement working to get the vote out.
McDonagh says she’ll be trying to persuade as many friends and family members in the GRT community as possible to vote on Thursday.
She said: “Once you explain to them what the parties stand for and what it means for our way of life then they start to think it might be worth it.”
McDonagh said she has been posting about the election on her Facebook page, and a particular video from Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has had a positive impact.
She said: “My cousin saw it and then he called me to ask what it was about – after he watched the video he called me back and said he wanted to vote so I sent him the link to register.
The Labour Party are standing with Travellers and we should stand with them. Vote Labour!
“I talked him through the process and he also registered his mammy. So that's at least three more votes for Labour!”