Voting is a hot topic these days - from the serious; voting for presidents, prime ministers or for independence, to the fun; voting for the winner of X Factor or the cutest cat competition. Everyone wants to win the 'public vote' and the public enjoy having the power.
But there are still a large number of people who feel excluded from important votes and who are frustrated at not being able to exercise their right to vote, simply because the traditional process has not moved on. How can it be that in 2014, people with sight loss still cannot vote as easily as everyone else?
Research carried out by RNIB revealed that 69 per cent of respondents were unable to vote in secret and independent of assistance. This figure is higher than we had anticipated - voting in secret is a fundamental right within our democratic system and yet the majority of blind and partially sighted people who responded to our survey were denied that right.
This also makes a mockery of anti fraud processes; when so many have to tell another person who they want to vote for but have no way of checking that their wishes are being met. This is not acceptable when it is possible to provide alternative formats cheaply and speedily.
Unfortunately, problems with the voting system stretch even wider, as the survey showed that nearly 80 per cent said they cannot read all or some of the election information sent to them by their council, and 90 per cent had problems with the information sent by the political parties. There are around 2 million people in the UK who are affected by sight loss; do none of the parties care enough to inform and engage with this community by simply providing information in an accessible format?
Educating the staff at the polling station is another important issue as many people reported in the survey that they were unaware that that tactile or large print templates that are supposed to help blind and partially sighted people even existed. Others told of how staff did not know how to use these or had the wrong templates available.
The referendum on Scottish independence on 18th September is the most important decision that Scotland will take in generations.
The amount of information that is being generated by the Better Together and Yes Scotland campaigns is enormous. And it is crucial that people can digest this to allow them to make an informed choice. A key part of this is direct information in the form of leaflets and booklets but often these are not accessible to blind and partially sighted people.
RNIB Scotland is working extremely hard to close this information-gap. Like most people in Scotland, blind and partially sighted people have questions that they want both campaigns to address. So, in the run up to the referendum, we held a hustings event in June in partnership with our Insight Radio station which explored the relevant issues and gave people the chance to express their views.
We worked with the Better Together and Yes Scotland campaigns to send a pack out, in accessible formats, to RNIB members in Scotland. These contained a letter from Blair McDougall (Better Together campaign director) and Blair Jenkins (Yes Scotland chief executive) outlining the key reasons to vote for them. It also included voter information provided by the Electoral Commission which should help to improve voting accessibility.
The level of engagement in this debate across Scotland's civic society is enormous and it is vital that blind and partially sighted people are able to be engaged as fully as possible. It is also clear from the passionate debates that social welfare, in particular disability living allowance / personal independence payments, is seen as an important issue, and those most affected should get their say on what could be life changing decisions.
In the final televised debate between Alastair Darling MP (Better Together) and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (Yes Scotland) it was hoped that a turnout of 80 per cent could be achieved at the ballot box. It would be great if those with sight loss could be part of that once in a lifetime event.
We are gathering more evidence from blind and partially voters to ensure that all the key issues are raised and to enable people to share their experiences, particularly with next year's general election looming.
RNIB will continue to meet with the Cabinet Office and Electoral Commission to press for improvements to be made and will feedback our evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. We are also drafting a manifesto for improving the electoral system for blind and partially sighted people - this will set out realistic solutions and improvements that we want government, political parties and local authorities to agree to.
People engaging in political affairs is a good thing and helps to create a more informed, tolerant and balanced society; blind and partially sighted people should be able to contribute to the debate, with the ability to understand all the information to make an informed vote.
More information about accessible voting and elections can be found here