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High Court calls for accessible elections

High Court calls for accessible elections
13th May 2019 Ian Streets

With local elections fresh in the memory, European elections coming soon and the possibility of any number of polls in the coming months, blind and partially sighted voters have won a significant legal victory.

The High Court has ruled that the Government’s provisions for blind and partially sighted people to vote are unlawful, and fail to allow blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and in secret.

The case was brought by Rachael Andrews and was supported by the RNIB, who provided an expert witness statement and highlighted research on people’s experiences of using the Tactile Voting Device (TVD) at elections.

A TVD sits over the ballot paper and is supposed to allow a blind or partially sighted person to select the candidate they want to vote for. However, the RNIB’s research found that only one in four blind and partially sighted voters felt the current system let them vote independently and in secret. A previous report showed that almost two thirds of those who did not vote said they would have done if the process had been more accessible.

Rachael, who comes from Norwich, has myopic macular degeneration and she has been registered blind since 2000.

Represented by Leigh Day solicitors, she successfully argued that, even when stocked and of the correct size for the ballot paper, TVDs do not allow blind and partially sighted people to vote independently as they still need help from the Presiding Officer at 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.  There is no way for a blind voter to know which flap on the TVD corresponds to which candidate.

Rachael further argued that the UK lags behind many other countries which have found other systems to allow blind voters to vote more easily including audio voting booths and telephone voting.

The High Court’s judgment said: “A device that does no more than enable blind voters to identify where on a ballot paper the cross can be marked, without being able to distinguish between one candidate from another, does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote.  Enabling a blind voter to mark ballot papers without being able to know which candidate she is voting for is a parody of the electoral process established under the rules”.

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.

“Despite all the technological advances 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.

“The Government now need to accept today’s judgment and urgently take the necessary steps to allow blind voters such as myself to vote independently and in secret in future elections.  There are many crucial issues facing this country and blind and partially sighted people have the same rights as everyone else to have their voices heard at election time.”

The RNIB said the local elections generated complaints from many blind and partially sighted people who described poor experiences at their polling stations.

Richard Holmes, Public Affairs Manager at RNIB, said: “It is completely unacceptable that in 2019 blind and partially sighted people are still unable to vote without assistance from another person. The High Court clearly agrees. 350,000 people registered blind or partially sighted in the UK now need a real commitment from Government that it will urgently take action to offer an alternative that will allow them to cast their vote in a truly independent and secret way in the next elections.”

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