Background to the Elections Bill 

RNIB is extremely concerned by proposed changes to voting legislation affecting blind and partially sighted people. Read our short briefing to understand why, and why it’s so important to raise concerns with MPs as quickly as possible to avoid these proposals becoming law. 

Blind and partially sighted people face unique challenges when voting 

Over the years RNIB has heard of the frustration and humiliation that blind and partially sighted people experience when they are unable to vote independently and in secret. The majority of the 350,000 blind and partially sighted people in the UK currently find it impossible to vote without having to share their vote with a companion or presiding officer in the polling station. 

Despite being nearly 150 years since the Ballot Act guaranteed everyone the right to vote in secret, our survey from UK elections in May 2021 found 4 in 5 blind people felt they were unable to vote both independently and in secret.  

What sorts of examples has RNIB heard? 

“The voting booth was right beside the queue for the check in desk; it wasn’t closed off and I had to verbalise my choice to my partner. When telling her which candidate I wanted, a person waiting in the queue beside the booth, audibly sighed. I don’t feel I get privacy in my vote.”  

“My helper disagrees with my vote and I have no way to be sure she voted as I wished… “ 

“As it stands, it’s a totally humiliating experience from start to finish, no assistance offered at any stage with people there just making assumptions that everyone can see.” 

What is a ‘tactile voting device’?  

The current device used to make ballot papers accessible for blind and partially sighted voters – the tactile voting device – helps voters find the boxes on the ballot paper independently. It is a plastic template which fits over the ballot paper, indicating where to mark a vote next to a candidate’s name. However, it does not include the names of the candidates, meaning it doesn’t provide a fully independent vote.  

This device should be available in all polling stations, but we know that sometimes it is not, and a 2019 legal judgment showed that using a tactile voting device on its own is not enough. 

Why do we fear that the proposed Elections Bill will turn back the clock for blind and partially sighted voters? 

The Elections Bill is a piece of draft legislation which is currently being discussed by a committee of MPs. MPs will vote on it in Parliament in early November. Once it becomes law it will govern how future elections are run.  

The Elections Bill makes changes on a wide range of issues to do with the conduct of elections in the UK. Along with headlines around Voter ID which have featured heavily in the press, we’re extremely concerned that its wording reduces the legal protections for blind and partially sighted people.  

Why do we think that the Elections Bill will reduce legal protection for blind and partially sighted voters?  

This is where it might get a bit technical, but please bear with us! 

The current bit of law related to what blind and partially sighted people can expect in the polling station is in something called the Representation of the People Act 1983. That says:  

(3A) The returning officer shall also provide each polling station with- 

(a) at least one large version of the ballot paper which shall be displayed inside the polling station for the assistance of voters who are partially-sighted; and 

(b) a device of such description as may be prescribed for enabling voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion.  

What would the Elections Bill change about the current provisions for blind and partially sighted people? 

The Elections Bill replaces section (b) above, which refers to the tactile voting device (or another device decided on by the Government), with: 

(b) such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote in the manner directed by rule 37. 

This weakens the guarantees for blind and partially sighted people in two ways: 

Individual Returning Officers, instead of the Government, will now make the decision as to what to provide, creating a postcode lottery of provision. This will introduce uncertainty and anxiety amongst blind and partially sighted voters as they won’t know what to expect at polling stations or what they are entitled to. 

The introduction of the word “reasonable” means that a Returning Officer could decide they don’t think the provision of a tactile voting device, or other such equipment to enable an independent vote, is reasonable. 

In addition, the Bill takes out the existing words “without any assistance” which means there is less clarity that blind and partially sighted people have a right to a secret and independent vote.  

Different voters need different adaptations. Isn’t it a good thing to be less prescriptive about exactly what support blind, partially sighted or disabled people might expect, to help them vote?  

We agree it’s important not to be overly prescriptive, and to have wording that allows for future solutions that may be developed for disabled voters. But we don’t agree that allowing for this should compromise the legal protections that blind and partially sighted people have today.  

At present the tactile voting device sets a minimum standard for blind and partially sighted voters. Along with a large print ballot paper it is guaranteed to be available in every polling station, and where it is not, the law is being broken.  

If the law were changed in the way that’s being planned, individual Returning Officers - the officials in charge of elections in each constituency - would have the power to make decisions about what equipment to provide. This would make it much harder for blind and partially sighted people to know what to expect in the polling station. 

If the existing law is maintained, we hope we would be able to widen the device prescribed by Government to include the audio player, and then in the future change this device as new technologies are available, meaning a truly independent vote is possible for blind and partially sighted people. 

What’s more, the Equality Act already requires Returning Officers to make reasonable adjustments, which we’ve seen with things like magnifiers being allowed in polling stations, so no additional flexibility is provided by the new changes. 

And finally, we see no reason not to include the Government’s new wording to support disabled people to vote as a new clause entirely, rather than as a replacement for the current clause specific to blind and partially sighted people.  

What is RNIB’s concern about introducing the phrase ‘such equipment as it is reasonable to provide’? 

In the revised wording proposed, an individual Returning Officer could in theory decide that even the tactile voting device is not ‘reasonable’ to provide. This would make voting even less accessible than it is at the moment! 

Why does RNIB want solutions to be prescribed at a national level? 

RNIB and the Cabinet Office already find it can be difficult to communicate to all polling stations that the tactile voting device is required, and voters frequently report being told it is not available.  

Moving the decision about what support to provide to blind and partially sighted people to the level of the Returning Officer, at the constituency level, would result in a postcode lottery of provision.  

It would make it very difficult for blind and partially sighted people to know what to expect and to obtain the adjustments they need, damaging their ability to vote independently even further. 

Has RNIB tried working with the Government? 

Yes, for the last two years we have been working with the Cabinet Office, the government department responsible for the conduct of elections, to develop a new way to vote independently which we were expecting the Government to prescribe at a national level instead of the tactile voting device alone. Our proposed solution was to provide an audio player alongside the tactile voting device, to read out the names on the ballot paper, meaning there is no need for someone else to help by reading out the candidates.  

This way of voting was trialled in polling stations in Norfolk in the May 2021 elections. Satisfaction rates among those who used it (a small sample because of the small scope of the trial) were 91%, compared with 39% among blind and partially sighted voters across the rest of the country with access to the tactile voting device alone.  

Do you have more questions? Please contact [email protected]