Polling station ‘discrimination’ fuels calls for online voting

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The experience of a partially-sighted voter who believes he was discriminated against at a general election polling station last week has added to calls for disabled people to be allowed to vote online.

Dan Williams, director of Visualise Training and Consultancy in Cardiff, had asked Cardiff council in advance if he could vote using a large print ballot paper, but was told this was not allowed.

The law states that all ballot papers must be the same size, so voters with sight loss are only allowed to be given a sample large print paper and a tactile voting device (TVD) that is placed over the actual ballot paper and guides them to the correct space for placing their mark.

But when Williams turned up to vote, he said he was told the polling station did not have any large print ballot papers for him to refer to, while he said staff did not know how to use the TVD.

Although he used the TVD to vote, he is not convinced that he marked the correct box.

He is now writing to the council to complain, and is calling for new laws that would allow online voting or the use of a large print ballot paper.

The council claims its polling station staff did know how to use the TVD and that there was a large print ballot paper on the wall.

Williams said he was not even told about the large print ballot paper on the wall but was just told the polling station did not have any large print sample ballot papers.

Electoral Commission guidance says that  – as well as a large print display copy – there must also be an “enlarged handheld copy” of the ballot paper that partially-sighted voters can take with them into the polling booth for reference.*

Williams’ experience comes after a new report, backed by the disabled president of the Liberal Democrats, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, called for an online voting option – as introduced in Australia, Switzerland and Estonia – to prevent a breach of disabled voters’ human rights.

The report, produced by the youth-led digital democracy thinktank WebRoots Democracy, warned that many disabled people were set be deprived of the right to a secret ballot in last week’s general election.

The report, Inclusive Voting, calls on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate these potential breaches of disabled people’s rights.

Baroness Brinton says in an introduction to the report: “A cornerstone of our electoral system is that voters should be able to vote independently and in secret.

“This simply is not the case for many voters with vision impairments and other disabilities.

“It is not right that hundreds of thousands of voters are being made to depend on others to cast their ballot on their behalf, or risk accidentally spoiling their vote.

“It is clear that the technology exists to enable independent and secret votes for all.

“As set out in this report, countries such as Australia have successfully implemented online voting for vision impaired and disabled voters. It is time for us to look at that here in Britain, too.”

Among its other recommendations, the report says that all major political parties should be legally obliged to produce their election manifestos in accessible formats before the opening of the window for postal voting.

The sight loss charity RNIB has also called for the law on access to voting for partially-sighted voters to be reviewed.

An RNIB spokeswoman said: “Partially-sighted voters are telling us they want to be able to vote independently and in secret.

“While having a large print reference copy of the ballot paper does help some, we think the current system is not properly enabling voters who cannot read the official ballot paper to cast their vote with the same independence and secrecy as everyone else.

“Online voting trials were successfully conducted in the UK many years ago. RNIB thinks this option should be trialled again, with a view to rolling it out to anyone for whom the paper-based voting system creates barriers of access.”

RNIB has received more than 500 responses to its voting access survey following the general election.

The spokeswoman added: “We will be analysing the data in a few weeks but in the meantime, we’re responding to a steady stream of complaints about blind and partially-sighted people’s experience of the voting process.

“People are telling us they have experienced the same problems as highlighted in our reports Turned Out 2015 and Turned Out 2016. They were not able to vote independently and in private.”

Only three days before the election, lawyers for Rachael Andrews, from Norwich, announced that she had accepted £2,000 compensation and an apology to settle a legal challenge against her local authority, Broadland District Council, for failing to enable her to vote independently and in secret at the 2015 general and local elections.

Andrews, who is blind, had visited her local polling station with her sighted mother-in-law and blind husband and had asked to use a TVD, but was told they did not have one.

She was forced to ask her mother-in-law to read out the candidates’ names and mark her votes on the ballot papers on her behalf.

Her lawyers, Leigh Day, later argued that the council had breached the Equality Act by failing to provide a TVD, and had also breached the right to vote by secret ballot in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Her case was settled out of court.

Andrews said: “I felt that the polling station staff didn’t care that I would not be able to cast my vote independently – I felt like I didn’t exist and that my vote counted less than everyone else’s. 

“The fact that I had to chase for a response and resort to legal action to seek redress added to my feelings that my complaint and my inability to vote in private was not taken seriously by my local authority.”

A council spokeswoman said it had apologised to Andrews and “improved our voting systems for all our visually-impaired residents.

“On the occasions that Mrs Andrews has voted since, we have liaised closely with Mrs Andrews to support her to vote more confidently and independently.”

She said that every polling station now had a TVD “prominently displayed” while all presiding officers were trained in how to use them.

*The council claims Williams turned down the chance of a postal vote, despite offering him support to fill in the application form, and that it offered to send him a TVD “on the condition that he sent it back”, but that he turned this offer down because he was “concerned about the cost of the postage to send it back”.

But he said this was not correct and that the council had told him that “the TVD was expensive and couldn’t be sent out to everyone who had a visual impairment who wanted to post a vote.

“In addition, I explained that I would still need someone to help me use the TVD as I wouldn’t know how to line it up.”

He says he was also told by the council that the TVD templates were now “outdated” because the format of the ballot papers had changed.

The council was unable to respond by 1pm today (Thursday) after being asked to comment on its apparently misleading statement.