On Thursday, two million blind and visually impaired people living in the UK could find themselves struggling to cast their vote as they head to the polls. Worse, they may feel so disenfranchised that they won’t vote at all, because the current measures put in place to assist visually impaired voters are not fit for purpose.
Ballot papers aren’t accessible for visually impaired people because they do not contain large print, let alone braille for the one per cent of visually impaired people who can read it in the UK. In order to try and make ballots accessible, the UK government introduced something called a tactile voting device (TVD) back in 2001, which hypothetically gave visually impaired voters the ability to vote independently and in secret for the first time. But earlier this year, the TVD was ruled unlawful because it does not do what it was introduced to do.
The device, which is a fiddly plastic template strip with flaps containing numbers in both large print and braille written over the flaps, is fitted over the boxes on a ballot paper. In order to cast a vote, the visually impaired voter needs to use the large-print reference ballot placed in every polling station to identify which number corresponds to each candidate, or have a volunteer read out the candidates one by one. Once the voter knows which number corresponds to each candidate, they then lift up the relevant flap and make their mark.
Back in May, the device was ruled unlawful after Rachael Andrews, who has myopic macular degeneration and is registered blind, took the government to court over the provision of the tactile voting device. “A judge ruled in a judicial review case that the provision of the TVD was unlawful because it doesn’t allow blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and in secret – and they are the two key words there – under current legislation,” Andrews says. “It doesn’t do either of those things because it’s a plastic device that has lift-up flaps which don’t allow you to know who you’re voting for, so somebody has to read it out or you have to memorise the order in which the candidates are listed.”
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s (RNIB) most recent report on the 2017 general election, only one in four blind and partially sighted people said the current system let them vote independently and in secret. Eight out of ten of those who voted at the polling station using the TVD said they did so with a companion or member of staff.
“We hear multiple stories every election from blind and partially sighted people who have needed assistance from elections staff to vote, and have had their vote commented on by staff or not been 100 per cent sure that their preference has been recorded correctly,” says Eleanor Thompson, head of policy and public affairs at RNIB. “We hear about occasions when the TVD has not been available, and the large print ballot paper is frequently stuck on the wall, meaning partially sighted voters cannot easily take it with them into their polling booth.”
Despite winning the case back in May, nothing has yet been done to actually bring in a system that allows vision impaired people to vote both independently and in secret. “The government has been rather reticent in their progress towards replacing or enhancing or adding to it, so we’re considering going back to court because basically they just haven’t done anything about it,” says Andrews.
In order for visually impaired people to vote in elections, Andrews says, we need to move away from a paper ballot voting system, and instead adopt one where people can use the telephone or vote electronically. In 2011, the state of New South Wales in Australia launched an electronic voting system called iVote, and it expanded it in 2015. It is a web-based platform that allows people to vote by phone or by web. The iVote system was only available to those with a disability, those who live in remote locations, and those outside of New South Wales on election day. According to WebRoots Democracy, a think tank focusing on the intersection between technology and democratic participation, iVote increased participation, with one in ten users reporting that they would not have cast a vote without the system.
“Given how technology is being used in so many different applications for voters with various disabilities, whether it’s navigation or anything else, it makes sense to look at technology as a way to reform voting in the same way,” says Areeq Chowdhury, founder of WebRoots Democracy. “So, I see it as quite a good, necessary solution. It shouldn’t really be something that we just think is nice to have, it’s necessary.”
Critics have questioned the potential for online voting to get hacked, but Chowdhury points out that there are measures that can mitigate the security risks and verify votes. “In terms of it being hacked by a foreign state, it could require a public ledger of all votes split amongst every local authority where everyone can go and verify their vote anonymously,” he says.
It’s not just visually impaired people who are finding themselves cut out of the electoral process, but those with other disabilities, too. Disability campaigners believe that it’s not just the voting process that needs to be made accessible, but also campaigning as it works now. “We have done some research on disabled voters, and based in part on collaboration with disability rights groups, and a lot of the things that they are demanding, really has to do with political communication,” says Pier Luc Dupont Picard, a research associate in the EU’s Horizon 2020 project Ethos on justice, and sociology, politics and international relations professor at the University of Bristol. Last month, inclusion activist Hector Minto launched the #NoCaptionsNoVote campaign, calling on politicians to add captions to their campaign videos if they want their vote.
“In this election [campaign], more than ones in the past, there’s so much video content being created, and short clips, but what we’ve seen with so many of them is that they’re not using captions, so they’re missing out on a potential huge voter base, whether that be people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” says James Taylor, head of campaigns, policy and public affairs at Scope, who has helped lead #NoCaptionsNoVote.
All in all, Andrews, who took the provision of the TVD to court back in May, says that it’s about having the right to vote in secret like sighted voters. “To dismiss it and say, ‘you know, it doesn’t really matter’ – it does matter. It matters to a lot of people, and it’s a constitutional right, and I think we should have that.”
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