This Bill risks watering down the requirements to enable blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and in secret.
We’ve submitted evidence to the Public Bill Committee of MPs scrutinising the Government’s Elections Bill, outlining why RNIB is extremely concerned the wording in the proposed legislation is reducing the legal protections for blind and partially sighted people.
During elections, staff at polling stations are currently required to provide a device specified by the Government to enable blind and partially sighted voters to vote “without any need for assistance”. Currently, the device required by the Government is a Tactile Voting Device (TVD) - a plastic template which fits over the ballot paper. The TVD indicates where to mark your vote next to your chosen candidate’s name.
In the proposed legislation, the requirement to provide equipment to enable those with sight loss to vote “without any need for assistance” is lost, making it less clear that the right to an independent and secret vote is afforded to blind and partially sighted people.
Instead the Elections Bill proposes a new requirement for polling station staff to make available “such equipment as it is reasonable to provide” and no longer requires the Government to specify what equipment should be available at polling stations. Under the new legislation it would be up to individual Returning Officers to decide what to provide. This could create a postcode lottery of provision, with 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.
Futhermore, the introduction of the word “reasonable” means a Returning Officer could decide they don’t think the provision of a TVD, or other such equipment to enable an independent vote, is reasonable.
We know the current arrangements for voting are far from perfect, and for years we’ve highlighted the unacceptable barriers people with sight loss face. Most recently in our Turned Out 2021 report we found that four out of five blind people felt they were unable to vote both independently and in secret, in elections during May 2021.
However, improvements could be made within the pre-existing rules because we’ve worked with the Government to develop a new way to vote independently. This involves using an audio player alongside the TVD, which was trialled in the May 2021 elections at polling stations in Norfolk. Satisfaction rates among those who used it were 91 per cent, compared with 39 per cent among blind and partially sighted voters across the rest of the country, with access to the TVD alone.
Alongside receiving written evidence, the Public Bills Committee is holding oral evidence sessions. We were pleased to hear our concerns raised at a recent session by Fazilet Hadi, Head of Policy at Disability Rights UK, who said:
The provisions on equipment seem to be turning the clock back a little, particularly for blind and partially sighted voters.
She added, “For people across the country who are registered blind, any sense that you could go to a polling station in one local authority area and get one device, and go to another elsewhere and get another device, would be a retrograde step.”
All MPs will have a chance to vote on the changes proposed in the Elections Bill in early November, so please stay tuned for further updates and action.
Read more about campaigning on voting.