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Government's provisions for blind voters to be challenged in the High Court

The High Court will hear a legal challenge to the government's provisions for blind voters on Wednesday 6th March 2019.

Posted on 04 March 2019

The judicial review challenge has been brought by Rachael Andrews, who is blind, in relation to the Government’s failure to make arrangements to allow her to vote independently and secretly at the polling station. Rachael, 46, from Norwich has myopic macular degeneration which means that her eyesight deteriorated and she has been registered blind since 2000.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 allows the Government to designate a device to allow blind people to vote “without any need for assistance”. Currently the government has designated a piece of plastic called a Tactile Voting Device or TVD which is supposed to fit over the ballot paper to allow a person to mark an ‘X’ in a particular place. Rachael is challenging the government’s decision to designate a TVD as a suitable device as she does not consider that it actually allows blind people to vote without the need for assistance. 
In this legal case Rachael argues that, even when stocked and of the correct size, a more fundamental problem is that the TVD doesn’t actually allow blind people to vote independently and in secret as they still need help from the Presiding Officer (the official in charge of the polling station) or a member of their close family to read to them the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper.  This is particularly an issue if there are multiple elections (and therefore ballot papers) on the same day and/or there are a large number of candidates in a particular election.
There have been a number of problems reported with polling stations not having the TVDs or them being the wrong size for the particular ballot paper. Rachael successfully settled a previous legal claim against Broadland District Council in 2017 for failing to have the TVD available for the 2015 General Election.
Rachael argues that the UK lags behind many other countries which have found systems to allow blind voters to vote more easily including audio voting booths and telephone voting.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has provided a witness statement in support of the case and highlighting the research they have undertaken regarding the challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people when voting. Their latest report Turned Out 2017 found that only one in four blind and partially sighted voters felt the current system let them vote independently and in secret. In addition, their Turned Out 2016 report showed that almost two thirds of those that did not vote said they would have done if it had been more accessible. 
Rachael said: “The right to vote independently and in secret is fundamental to any democratic society and it is extremely frustrating that I have had to bring this legal challenge all the way to the High Court in order to try to force the government to change the provisions available for blind voters. 
“It is clear from my own experiences and the research carried out by the RNIB that the current provisions provided by the government are not fit for purpose and are therefore putting blind and partially sighted people at a disadvantage. Not only that but the lack of accessibility is discouraging blind people from voting.
“Despite all the technological advances now  available that enable people with disabilities to lead an independent life, I find it immensely depressing that, when it comes to voting, one of the most important responsibilities a person has in a democracy, the only aid available to a blind voter is a piece of plastic that doesn’t really work.”
Sean Humber, solicitor from law firm Leigh Day, said: “We hope that the court will hear our client’s challenge and confirm that the current arrangements fail to enable blind people to vote independently and are unlawful.  The Government’s attempt to artificially reduce the act of voting to simply marking a ballot paper, while conveniently ignoring the need for voters to also know who the candidates are and where they appear on the ballot paper, does it no favours.  The fact that the technology exists and is used in other countries to allow blind people to vote independently, makes the Government’s intransigence all the more unacceptable.”
Marie Chadwick, policy and campaigns officer at RNIB, has given evidence on behalf of the charity. Speaking of the issue, she said: “All voters have a right to vote independently and in secret, regardless of their level of sight. It is completely unacceptable that in 2019 blind and partially sighted people are still unable to vote without assistance from another person. 
“For years, RNIB has consistently raised concerns about the Tactile Voting Device, which is not fit for purpose. 350,000 people registered blind or partially sighted in the UK need a real commitment from Government to offer an alternative that will allow them to cast their vote in a truly independent and secret way in the next elections.”
Tim Buley of Landmark Chambers is instructed by Rachael in this matter.
Rachael is grateful to the Legal Aid Agency for funding this case.