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Accessible voting win (but still a way to go)

Blind and partially sighted people should be able to use tools such as mobile phone apps or video magnifiers in the polling booth to help read the options on the ballot paper, according to the Cabinet Office.

A sign directing to a polling station.

We’ve just received confirmation that Returning Officers, who are in charge of elections locally, have received a note from the Cabinet Office suggesting that they allow people with sight loss to use other devices as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.

We’ve been campaigning on this issue for years, and the current provisions were ruled unlawful in May after RNIB Campaigner of the Year 2019, Rachael Andrews, took a legal case against the Government. But up until now, we haven’t seen tangible change in policy from the Cabinet Office.

What does the note say?

The note reminds Returning Officers that they are legally required to have the tactile voting device (TVD), a large print version of the ballot paper displayed on the wall and a large print handheld version of the ballot paper for partially sighted people to use alongside their ballot paper. The big change for us, though, is that it does suggest other options that could be used.

It explains that many people with sight loss use their mobile phones to read documents audibly or visually and that others carry pocket-sized video magnifiers to help them read. The Cabinet Office tells Returning Officers that they could allow these to be used help voters with sight loss.

However, crucially, the decision rests with the individual Returning Officer which still means being able to use this type of tool is not guaranteed.

What can you do if you want to use an additional tool to vote?

When you get to the polling station please speak to staff, explain that you are blind or partially sighted and what tool or device you would like to use. Mention that you would like to use this tool or device as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act 2010.

The Returning Officers have been briefed that this may be a possibility, but staff need to be satisfied that you would not be using the phone, app or scanner inappropriately, and ultimately the decision about whether to allow you to use it rests with them.

Because of this, it is not guaranteed that you will be able to use your device, and therefore we advise that if you normally vote with someone else, that you take them along as well.

What do we think about this?

It is good to see movement on accessible voting after so long. But this is not an acceptable long-term solution to making voting accessible, and we will continue calling on the Cabinet Office to find a way to guarantee that blind and partially sighted people can be confident they can vote independently and in private every time.

Our experience is that adjustments made in polling stations widely vary, and our expectation is that implementation of this new policy will be just the same. We’ll be running a survey from polling day onwards to find out how successful this measure is.