Shop RNIB Donate now

Why voting in secret remains impossible for many people with sight loss

It’s more than 150 years since the establishment of the right to vote in secret. But this right is still not afforded to many blind and partially sighted people.

A sign pointing to a polling station with a wheelchair symbol.

In the last General Election only 13 per cent of blind people could vote independently and in secret.

We hear frequently from people with sight loss of how they have faced challenges in exercising their democratic right to cast a secret and independent vote.

The practical act of voting – making a cross in a specific location on a piece of paper – is fundamentally a visual exercise. Without being able to read the ballot paper, in practice someone with sight loss often has to share their vote with someone else, either in the polling station or when voting by postal vote.

Blind people have told us about times when they said their choice out loud in the polling station and people waiting nearby have scoffed at their decision. They have also reported not being certain they voted the way they wished - as someone else had done it for them - or tell us they have opted out of the democratic process altogether.

Several reliable solutions do exist, but have not been rolled out nation-wide. These must be made widely available so every blind and partially sighted person can vote independently and in secret.

What does the next Prime Minister need to do?

Blind and partially sighted people have a right to a secret vote. The UK Government has a responsibility to make sure there are alternative ways to participate for those who find the current system inaccessible.

We’re urging whoever forms the next government to make voting accessible, once and for all, so that blind and partially sighted people can cast their vote independently and in secret.

Recap: What has happened in recent years?

We’ve been campaigning for a wider range of accessible voting solutions to be tested and made more easily available both across the UK and in the devolved nations.

In May 2019, the High Court of Justice ruled that present provisions for voters with sight loss were 'a parody of the electoral process’ because they fail to allow them to vote independently and in secret. This was because the two main voting aids being used - a large-print ballot paper, available for reference, and a tactile voting device, a plastic template that fits over the ballot paper - still mean people need a sighted person to read the content of the ballot paper and guide them where to put their cross.

Following this, RNIB worked with government on a small scale trial of audio and tactile solutions in 2021, which received much better feedback from blind and partially sighted people but these measures were not made routinely available in every polling station.

Our #BlindVotersCount campaign

Despite all our activity, draft legislation on elections that was brought before Parliament in autumn 2021 was a major step backwards.

The proposed legislation watered down the existing legal protections. It removed the need for every polling station to have a device to make voting possible “without any assistance” for voters with sight loss, putting the burden on individuals to request the reasonable adjustments they would need from their local electoral officials.

RNIB campaigned vigorously against these changes in our #BlindVotersCount campaign. More than 7,000 people signed our petition calling on the then Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove MP, to retain the guarantee of the ability to vote without assistance for people with sight loss.

As a result, the UK Government backed amendments to the Bill put forward by Lord Holmes which meant that the principle of an independent and secret vote was enshrined in the final legislation. The amendments also imposed new legal duties on the Electoral Commission to produce guidance to support an independent and secret vote from 2023.

We fed into this guidance as it was developed, and have continued to work with both the Electoral Commission and Returning Officers since then.

If the law has changed, how do you know blind and partially sighted people will have to share their vote again this time?

The changes made to the law put the onus on blind and partially sighted people to make contact with electoral authorities and request the specific adaptations they need, requests which may or may not be granted. The vast majority of blind and partially sighted people will not know these provisions exist, or what adaptations to request. The short timescale of a General Election being called with six weeks’ notice is likely to make it particularly difficult for electoral staff to comply with requests.

Thanks to guidance, not law, the minimum standard of equipment available in the polling station remains largely the same as in 2019. For that reason, we do not expect most people’s voting experience to have changed. While the guidance does include audio devices under other equipment that polling stations could provide, it is not part of the minimum standard and will only be provided when a need has been identified, in most cases where it is requested.

What solutions exist?

Blind and partially sighted people often tell us they would prefer online or telephone voting, as getting to the polling station can be a barrier for some. For example, Australia has a human assisted telephone voting model, where a blind or partially sighted person can pre-register, and on the day of the election they can vote over the phone anonymously and therefore secretly.

The UK Government has so far ruled out alternative voting methods, and we have therefore been exploring ways audio can be used with tactile to enable people to vote. Four accessible solutions were tested by blind and partially sighted people at RNIB’s office in London in September 2023 in conjunction with the Electoral Commission and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The solutions include a range of tactile and audio devices which allow people with sight loss to determine the order of the list of candidates and mark their desired box independently.

To request an accessible device for the upcoming election, find our template letters here.

Read about our accessible voting trial here.

Read the report of the trial here.

Find out more

We’ve monitored blind and partially sighted people’s experiences in a series of reports since 2015.

For our 2024 #BlindVotersCount campaign we are using statistics and evidence gathered from voters’ experiences in the last General Election and recorded in Turned Out 2019.

Our most recent report was our Turned Out Report 2022.