With a general election looming, at a time of heightened political tensions with a deeply divided electorate, it's more essential than ever that people can cast their vote in private.
This right is fundamental to a healthy democracy. It allows voters to cast their ballot without anyone judging their decision or coercing them into voting for a party or candidate they don't want to.
In May 2019 the High Court ruled that the present provisions for blind and partially sighted voters are unlawful because they failed to allow them to vote independently and in secret. RNIB provided an expert witness statement and highlighted our report on the last general election, "Turned Out 2017", which found that only one in four voters with sight loss felt the current system worked.
Currently, there are two voting aids available to them: a large-print ballot paper and a Tactile Voting Device (TVD).
The large-print ballot paper should give a voter who can't read print on a standard sized paper the same information in a bigger font-size, including what order the candidates are in, and their names and party. But the need to ensure no ballot paper can identify a voter means this can only be used as a guide for the standard ballot paper, not a replacement.
After the 2019 European elections we received complaints that the large-print ballot paper at some polling stations in Scotland was simply a copy of the standard-size paper mounted on a large sheet of paper.
The High Court case focused on the use of the Tactile Voting Device (TVD). This is a thin plastic template that fits over the ballot paper where the voter marks their X. It has embossed numbers, the braille equivalent, and tab windows so that voters can make their mark in their chosen position.
However, it can't make the name of the candidates clearer. This still requires a companion, or polling station staff-member, to read out the list of candidates, and where the preferred candidate is on the ballot paper. 80 per cent of people surveyed by RNIB who used a TVD said that they voted with another person.
Voters with sight loss told us they were worried they still might have accidentally voted for the wrong option, that the template didn't line up properly, and they couldn't be sure the pen they used had worked. Unless, again, someone checked their completed ballot paper for them.
We welcome the court ruling which puts the onus on the UK Government to develop an alternative to the TVD. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the next general election is scheduled to be held in 2022. Normally, this would have allowed time to develop an alternative, enabling blind and partially sighted people to cast their vote in a truly independent and secret way.
However, given that a snap general election is anticipated within weeks this is unlikely to be resolved.
It is surely unacceptable in any democracy that some people can't be certain they have voted for the candidate or party they want when they put their ballot paper in the box.
RNIB Scotland has been working with the Electoral Commission and Scottish Government on possible solutions, feeding in the views of blind and partially sighted people.
We are calling on both the UK and Scottish Governments to urgently explore alternative voting methods for people with sight loss. In the longer term this should include consideration of telephone or secure digital options.
This op-ed by James Adams, Director of RNIB Scotland, originally appeared in The Herald on 8 October 2019.