The majority of blind and partially sighted people in the UK are still unable to vote independently or in secret, according to figures released by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) today.
The charity found that only one in 10 blind voters (13 per cent) and less than half of partially sighted voters (44 per cent) said that they were able to vote independently and in private in the 2019 General Election. A further two thirds (61 per cent) of blind people and a third (32 per cent) of partially sighted people had to get another person to help them to vote.
Mark Griffiths, 48, from West Yorkshire was registered blind not long before the General Election in December and was 100 per cent reliant on his partner taking him to the polling station and voting for him.
He said: “My independent vote has been lost as I have to rely on someone voting for me. Should changes not be made before the next elections, I would be reluctant to vote due to there being no option for me to do so without the assistance of someone else.
“In December’s General Elections, I was completely reliant on my partner voting on my behalf. Whilst she joked that she was going to choose an alternative party, if I’d relied on someone else, this could well have been the case.”
As well as uncovering problems with casting a vote, RNIB’s research also highlights issues with the accessibility of voting information. More than half (53 per cent) of blind people and 15 per cent of partially sighted people reporting that they couldn’t read any of the voting information sent to them by the local council, such as polling cards.
Eleanor Southwood, Chair of Trustees at RNIB, said: “Despite ten years since the Equality Act and twenty-five years since the Disability Discrimination Act, we are still not able to exercise our fundamental human right to have our say on how our country is governed independently and in secret.”
The current device used to make ballot papers accessible for blind and partially sighted voters – the Tactile Voting Device (TVD)* – was declared unlawful in May 2019 in a case brought by campaigner Rachael Andrews and law firm Leigh Day. In the judgement, Mr. Justice Swift said “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”, saying that to meet legal obligations a device “must allow the blind voter to mark the ballot paper against the name of her candidate of choice…without any need for assistance".
Despite Rachael’s efforts, she says there is still a long way to go in making voting accessible: “I was delighted to have won a ruling in 2019 that ruled tactile voting devices as unlawful due to them not allowing people with sight loss to vote independently, or in secret. I know from my own experiences, and from hearing from others who are living with a visual impairment, how challenging it can be to cast your vote independently, something which should be equally available to everyone.”
RNIB has been working with the Cabinet Office to find a way to make voting in a polling station more accessible, with further testing due to happen next week. User experience experts will assess whether an audio device with headphones could be taken into the ballot box and used with the TVD to listen to the candidates’ names and cast a vote in the right place with no need for another person to be present. The charity and the Cabinet Office are hopeful that if this is proven accessible, it will be rolled out to 40,000 polling stations in time for local elections in 2021.
Eleanor Southwood continued: “Resolving this situation has taken far too long. We have been working with the Cabinet Office, which looks promising. We’re hopeful that the prospect of independent voting for blind and partially sighted people is now imminent.
“Rolling out the audio device widely is definitely a step in the right direction. There is still much more that needs to be done to make the system fully accessible, such as introducing polling cards in people’s preferred formats and reviewing the postal voting system. We are keen to continue working with the Cabinet Office to make this happen so that future elections are accessible, and the process is truly equal for all.”
Craig Westwood, Director of Communications, Policy and Research at the Electoral Commission, said: “The Turned Out report is important in understanding the voting experience of blind and partially sighted voters.
“Everyone, no matter their circumstances, should be able to take part in elections and cast their vote with confidence; but we know that some blind and partially sighted people still face barriers to voting. Ahead of the May 2021 elections, we are working with partners including the RNIB to ensure that all voters are aware of the resources and support available to allow them vote independently and confidently.”
All media enquiries to the RNIB press office on 0207 391 2223 or [email protected]. For urgent enquiries out-of-hours, please call 07968 482812.
RNIB runs a survey after each General Election that asks blind and partially sighted people about their voting experiences. After 2019’s election, RNIB received responses from 480 people. The Turned Out 2019 report will be available of RNIB’s website from 13 October. For an advance copy, please contact the press office.
If a person difficulty completing the standard print ballot paper, they can use a tactile voting device to help mark their vote in the correct place. Each polling station must provide a tactile device for people with sight loss.
The tactile voting device has a sticky backing, which attaches on top of a ballot paper. It has numbered lift-up flaps (the numbers are raised and in braille) directly over the boxes where a vote is marked.
When using the TVD, a person will need to use the large print ballot form, or ask someone (a companion or polling station staff) to read out the list of candidates. The candidates are in alphabetical order. They will need to remember the number of the candidate they wish to vote for, then lift the flap with the same number and mark their cross (X) in the box.
They can then detach the tactile device and fold their ballot paper in half before posting it in the ballot box.
We are the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
Every six minutes, someone in the UK begins to lose their sight. RNIB is taking a stand against exclusion, inequality and isolation to create a world without barriers where people with sight loss can lead full lives. A different world where society values blind and partially sighted people not for the disabilities they’ve overcome, but for the people they are.
RNIB. See differently. Call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or visit www.rnib.org.uk