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UK Government Elections Bill risks further disenfranchising blind and partially sighted voters

RNIB voices concerns over Government proposals which could make it harder for blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and in secret.

Image: A person dropping a piece of paper into a ballot box

Next year will mark 150 years since the Ballot Act gave all electors the right to a secret ballot. Yet only one in five blind people said they could vote both independently and in secret in our recent research which followed the May elections in England, Wales and Scotland. This is unacceptable.

Under current laws, officials at polling stations must provide equipment to enable blind and partially sighted people to vote without any assistance. This includes a large print ballot papers and a tactile voting device (TVD) used to mark the ballot paper. But the electoral system is still failing blind and partially sighted voters.

Now, the UK Government is proposing changes to the electoral system in its Elections Bill, and we are concerned that some of the proposed changes relating to accessibility will weaken protections, which could make it even harder for blind and partially sighted people to cast their vote independently and in secret.

The Elections Bill

The Elections Bill covers a wide range of issues related to the administration and conduct of elections.

Parliament will consider this draft legislation in the autumn. It will go through numerous stages and must be approved, by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, before it can become law, when it changes from being a Bill to an Act.

Our concerns

Firstly, we are concerned that a legal requirement for Returning Officers to provide prescribed equipment to enable blind and partially sighted people to read the ballot paper and cast their vote “without any assistance” has been removed in the proposed legislation. This is a vital protection which formed the basis of the Judicial Review in 2019 which found current provisions to support blind and partially sighted people to vote unlawful.

The Bill proposes replacing this wording with a new clause that returning officers must provide “such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, [disabled people] to vote” independently.

In our view, the introduction of the word “reasonable” is a significant weakening of the guarantees currently provided. The change would mean that instead of polling stations having to have equipment prescribed by the Government, such as a TVD, they would only have to provide equipment that they consider “reasonable” to make voting easier. While we hope this won’t happen, in a worst-case scenario this could be interpreted by some as suggesting that there are circumstances in which providing a TVD would be unreasonable.

Any rollback on the legal protections in current law would be a regressive step and will likely damage confidence in the accessibility of voting further.

What we are doing

We are meeting regularly with the civil servants overseeing the Elections Bill, are urgently alerting MPs of all parties to our concerns and we have submitted evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is scrutinising the Bill. Our evidence sets out the case for the retention of the current wording regarding the provision of equipment and the right to vote without assistance.

We have also been working with the Cabinet Office to improve the accessibility of elections, and a trial of an audio player used to read out names on the ballot paper was very successful. Of the people who took part, 91 per cent were satisfied with their voting experience, a significant improvement compared to 39 per cent satisfaction nationwide.

We are calling on the Cabinet Office to amend the Bill to keep existing legal protections for blind and partially sighted voters and to roll out accessible voting in time for elections in 2022.

We will keep you updated as this Bill progresses through Parliament and the ways you can support our campaign to keep existing legal protections.