According to the Electoral Commission in the UK, all voters should have the right to cast their vote independently and privately. However, for those with disabilities, blindness or partial sight, this is not always the case. There are still significant barriers for particular groups of voters when it comes to claiming their right to an independent, private and secure vote, leaving many feeling ignored and excluded from the democratic process. It's clear that for many with disabilities and visual impairment, modernising the electoral process is not just a matter of convenience, it's a necessity.
Disabled and visually impaired voters currently have a number of options when it comes to casting their vote, with Electoral Commission guidance stating that polling stations must take proactive steps to ensure these groups are not at a disadvantage. For example, voters may request assistance from the Presiding Officer at the polling station to help mark the ballot paper on their behalf or bring a family member to help them vote, both of which clearly eliminate their right to secrecy. Proxy and postal voting are other options and rely on individuals having a trusted friend or family member who can cast their vote - again, voters must forfeit their right to privacy and secrecy with either of these options.
Tactile voting devices enabling visually impaired voters to mark their ballot paper in secret are a step forward, as well as the provision of large-print versions of ballot papers for reference before casting a vote. But let's not forget that most of these options rely on voters having access to polling stations, which we know is not always the case. Indeed, just last year there was a well publicised example of a wheelchair user being unable to access his local polling station. In this instance, the Presiding Officer proceeded to offer the voter the option of completing his ballot paper in a public street - his voting rights were almost completely eradicated on the basis of his disability.
Technology holds the key to enabling those with disabilities and visual impairment to vote privately, securely and independently - in other words, to participate in the electoral process on equal terms. Indeed, the option of casting a secure and private vote using either online or telephone voting technology has been available for some time and utilised by governments around the world. So perhaps rather than asking 'when' the UK is going to provide citizens with disabilities the option of alternative voting channels, the question should be why these groups, and indeed all voters, don´t have access to secure and private voting already?
Voting technology can play a key role in ensuring everyone can cast a secure and unassisted vote, as well addressing typical problems such as votes being invalidated by unintended marks on the ballot paper and voters not having access, for whatever reason, to a polling station. Online voting, for example, uses encryption so voters can transmit their ballot papers over the internet, and from the privacy of their own home if they wish, privately and securely. Similarly, for those who can and want to attend a polling station on Election Day, online voting using PCs, tablets or smart devices can be utilised on location and adapted for the specific needs of disabled or visually impaired voters, from screen readers to sip and puff devices. The options go very far beyond rudimentary tactile voting devices and large-print ballot papers.
Similarly, telephone voting utilising both voice and telephone keypad options offer voters with limited mobility the choice of a private vote in their home or at a polling station. This technology makes voting extremely easy but more importantly is an excellent alternative for absentee voters, improving their voting experience without having to give up their right to a private and secure vote. It also ensures there are options available for voters who might have minimal internet coverage, if they live in a remote area, for example, or perhaps no computer access at all.
In his recent memoirs, Australia's former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes, who is also blind, described electronic voting as 'a way to provide me with a secret ballot which I haven't had for most of my life'. With so many proven cost, efficiency and accessibility benefits to using online and telephone voting alongside traditional voting methods, isn't it about time the UK Government made this technology available?