Introduction - Accessible Voting or How to Realise a Political Right

“Actually … how do visually impaired people vote?” In the past year, I heard this question a lot, whenever I mentioned that the German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted began to coordinate a new EBU project on just that topic. Not just for sighted people, it is a genuinely interesting question with some unsettling answers about political rights and good reason for hope for the future. In this introduction text for the latest EBU Focus, I would like to give a brief overview of what we found out so far.

Unsettling Answers

In November 2018, we published the first output of the AVA project on “Accessible Voting Awareness-Raising”, a status report on accessible voting. For this report, we surveyed 24 EBU member organisations, reviewed electoral legislation in 45 European countries and updated older EBU documents on the issue. In terms of content, we looked at the five ways that blind and partially sighted people use to vote in elections all over Europe: Voting with an assistant, voting with a tactile device, voting by mail, voting in advance and voting electronically. Of course, these methods are designed quite differently in each country and we noted several obvious problems.

The UNCRPD clearly states that visually impaired citizens should be free to choose their assistant for the voting process, but only a minority of countries apply this rule. In Cyprus or Greece for instance, one has to vote with an election official. In Lithuania or Poland, in reverse, one can vote with anyone but an election official. In Ireland, the visually impaired voter, who would like to rely on an assistant, could even be denied the right to vote, if there is not enough time to check the eligibility of their assistant of choice. EBU members, providing expert input to our report, even noted that election officials did not know about the right to vote with an assistant in countries such as Denmark, Sweden or the Netherlands.

Tactile devices, so-called stencils that are superimposed on the ballot to identify its content, are equally associated with problems. In several countries, for instance in Slovakia, the ballot is so crammed that no stencil could be developed. In Germany, pioneer of stencil voting in Europe, local election officials can modify the ballot at will, so that a generalised stencil loses its usability. In Austria, not all possible voting options show up on the stencil, so that visually impaired voters end up with less political participation rights than other citizens. A particularly startling case is Malta, where the stencil was only labelled in Braille. But since Braille literacy is very low on the island, no one ended up using the tactile tool. Only after several years did the Maltese election commission add an audio file, so that visually impaired voters can know, what is written on the ballot and on the stencil respectively.

Electronic voting, in turn, is mostly problematic because of its absence. While almost 80% of EBU experts would like to have some form of electronic voting in their home country, less than 10% of all countries offer voting machines or even an interface to vote over the internet. Even in those countries with electronic voting, however, there are implementation problems. In Belgium not all voting machines conform to the necessary accessibility requirements, such as non-visual output or acoustic confirmation. In Kazakhstan, the voting machines require a bar code scan and touch screen navigation, rendering them completely inaccessible.

Hope for the Future

In short, we found that visually impaired people cannot vote fully independently, in true secrecy and equal to everyone in most, if not all, European countries. This is not good news, but our research also turned up several good practical examples on how to make elections more accessible for voters with a visual impairment. They fall broadly into three categories.

First there are several good laws and regulations in place. In Malta, the access for all to elections is even a constitutional right. Norway has very clear rules on ballot design, including on font sizes, that somewhat improve the legibility of the content for partially sighted voters. In Georgia, all helpers at the election need to run through a mandatory training module on electoral law, which includes the rules for visually impaired voters.

Second, there are good alternative methods that arise when citizens are allowed to vote from home or in advance. In Slovenia, for example, one can vote five days in advance, potentially reducing the level of stress. In Montenegro, Iceland and several other countries, there is an option for postal voting. This might be particularly useful for partially sighted voters, who can rely on the lighting conditions or magnifying devices in their own living room to vote independently. Naturally, these alternatives are only useful, once they are linked to good assistance rules, tactile devices or electronic options.

Third, in this content it is interesting that several countries have recently begun to experiment with tactile devices. Just in the last year, Portugal has taken up stencil. Visually impaired persons in Ireland could vote with a stencil in a nation-wide referendum for the first time. And the Netherlands have not only trialled tactile devices in local elections, but are also working on solutions to simplify their tablecloth-sized paper ballot.

What’s next

Notably, these changes are linked to persistent advocacy from the local EBU member organisations. The pattern is obvious in other countries as well. The Spanish EBU Member, for example, prepares Braille and large-print voting kits for each visually impaired voters. Our German organisation is tasked with the preparation of the stencils and receives government funding for this. In the next phase of the AVA project, we now want to draw on this fact to make accessible elections a reality across Europe.

In early 2019, we prepared a video and a brochure to make our research report more comprehensible. In 2020, we will work together with policy makers, election officials and EBU members in four countries with elections that year: Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and Slovakia. Until now, visually impaired voters face significant barriers in each of these countries. But with our EBU project on Accessible Voting Awareness-Raising we hope to realise the political right to equal, secret and independent elections in these countries.

For further information on the AVA activity, visit our webpage.

By Benedikt Van den Boom, German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted, DBSV.