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How accessible is our voting system?

Human rights solicitor   Kate Egerton discusses the significant accessibility issues with our voting system for blind and partially sighted people 

Related Areas of Practice:
Kate Egerton works in the human rights team at Leigh Day.  She has a particular interest in deprivation of liberty and best interest cases.  You can follow Kate on twitter on @KateEgerton1 

Most of us will take our democratic right to vote independently and in secret for granted in this year's general election. However, for many blind and partially sighted people, this basic right is meaningless given the significant accessibility issues with our archaic voting system.

From registering to vote, to casting your vote by post and voting in person – the fact that our voting system relies heavily on paper, and does not utilise assistive technology, means that many blind and partially sighted people simply cannot cast their vote without the help of someone with sight.

The right to vote in secret

Every elector has the right to cast their ballot in secret; this has been a central feature of our election system since the Ballot Act 1872 and is also recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights which provides that governments must hold free elections by secret ballot. Even our own more recent laws regarding the voting process state that a voter must "secretly mark his paper".
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability and provides that public bodies must take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people are afforded the same levels of service as people who are not disabled.
Blind and partially sighted voters therefore have the same right to vote in secret as all other voters. However, in practice, they are unable to maintain the secrecy of their vote because they face obstacles at every step.
Postal vote

If a person wants to vote by post, they must complete a postal vote application form, and sign and return it to their local electoral registration office. Many blind and partially sighted people cannot access this form because it is in standard print, and it cannot be completed and submitted online.
Once the individual has applied to vote by post, they will be sent their postal vote, along with a ballot pack, including:

  1. Information on how to complete the postal vote;
  2. A ballot paper;
  3. A postal voting statement; and
  4. Two envelopes (A&B).

The elector is required to read the instructions in the information pack, mark their ballot paper in secret, complete the postal voting statement, put the ballot paper into envelope A, put envelope A and the postal voting statement into envelope B, and then send the documents back to their local electoral registration office.

However, all of the information in the ballot pack is sent in hard copy standard print. There is therefore no hope of blind and many partially sighted people casting a vote independently and in secret by post; they would require the assistance of someone with sight for every step.

Voting in person

Poll card
In advance of an election, an elector's local electoral registration office is required to send a poll card to them which contains information on where and when to vote. The poll card is not accessible to blind and partially sighted people because it is in hard copy standard print (or smaller).

Large print ballot paper
All polling stations are required to be equipped with a large print version of the ballot paper for reference to assist partially sighted people. However, for many partially sighted people, the text is nowhere near large enough to read. Often text in a size that partially sighted people can read would make the ballot paper impractical to produce and usefully refer to. A large print version of the ballot paper is of no use to blind and many partially sighted electors, and they require someone with sight to read the candidates to them.

Tactile voting device
Legislation requires that all polling stations are equipped with a device to enable blind and partially sighted people to vote "without assistance". This device is known as a tactile voting device ('TVD').  It has sticky backing which attaches on top of a ballot paper. It has numbered lift up flaps (the numbers are raised) directly over the boxes where each voter is supposed to be able to mark their vote. 

However, the TVD has a number of problems for blind and partially sighted voters because there is no method by which the TVD can identify the names of the candidates once the voter reaches the voting booth. Blind and partially sighted electors therefore have to ask the Presiding Officer or a friend/family member to read the candidates and to assist them to mark their vote on the ballot paper.  It is thus anything but a secret ballot.

The TVD device does not provide any equality between partially sighted voters and all other voters because blind and partially sighted voters need to seek assistance from staff at the polling station in order to understand:

a)The names of the candidates;
b)Which political party is associated with each candidate;
c)The position of each candidate on the ballot paper.

Once this information is provided, the blind or partially sighted voter then needs to accurately recall and use this information (sometimes in relation to several different elections) in order to exercise his or her right to vote.
Possible solutions

Your local elections office has obligations under disability and human rights legislation to ensure that all its correspondence and election materials are accessible. Legislation prevents the ballot paper from being provided in an alternative format, but other materials that could be provided in alternative formats, include:

  1. All correspondence regarding voting;
  2. The poll card;
  3. A list of candidates;
  4. The postal vote application form;
  5. The postal vote ballot pack, which includes:
    1. Information on how to complete the postal vote; and
    2. A postal voting statement.

Our legislation give examples of alternative forms, including Braille, audio and other means (for example, electronic), to make the information contained in these documents accessible. It is therefore open to your local authority to provide these documents to blind and partially sighted people in an accessible form.

Furthermore, while the ballot paper itself cannot be adapted, there is assistive technology available that could be used in conjunction with a TVD, such as audio labellers, to make the ballot paper accessible to blind and partially sighted voters. Or, better still, the government could come up with a totally new device or other technology (such as voting electronically or by telephone) that would truly allow blind and partially sighted electors to vote independently.

Legal action
Our client, Rachael Andrews, who is registered blind recently accepted compensation to settle a legal challenge against her local authority, Broadland District Council, after it failed to make the necessary arrangements to allow her to vote independently and in secret in the 2015 General Election. Please see the news story here.
If you are experiencing any difficulties in exercising your right to vote, or wish to discuss the problems you have had, you can contact Kate Egerton, a solicitor who specialises in human rights and equality law, on 020 7650 1200 or kegerton@leighday.co.uk for free initial advice.

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