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RNIB Cymru: make voting accessible once and for all

Dear Counsel General,

The Importance of Secret and Independent Voting

An independent and secret vote is a fundamental democratic right for all citizens living in a democratic society.

Voting is a visual exercise – from reading the ballot paper, to locating the correct box that relates to your preferred candidate and making your mark. This means the overwhelming majority of blind people are forced to share their voting intention, either with a family member, friend or polling station staff. Blind voters report feeling humiliated and let down by the system, and in some cases are not even certain who they voted for.

Fewer than one in five blind voters are able to cast their vote independently and in secret under the current system.

The Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill: A Missed Opportunity

When the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill was introduced in the Senedd, we were pleased to learn of the Welsh Government’s intention to “enhance the accessibility of devolved elections for disabled voters.”

However, it soon became apparent that the Bill, and the changes that would come into force as a result of it, would not guarantee blind and partially sighted people a secret and independent vote.

The Welsh Government suggests amending the existing framework to reflect a new ‘broader requirement to provide such equipment as is reasonable for enabling or making it easier for disabled people to vote independently’. This will replace the existing legislative requirement for polling stations to provide a prescribed device to enable blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and in secret.

We acknowledge that this amendment creates an opportunity for innovation and the adoption of new technologies to reduce the unacceptable barriers faced by blind and partially sighted during the voting process. However, the removal of a prescriptive requirement on what assistive devices must be provided will result in weakened legal protections for blind and partially sighted people.

The Bill also proposes to put a requirement on Returning Officers to respond to local need and provide each polling station with equipment as they consider “reasonable” to support disabled voters. RNIB is extremely concerned that allowing individual Returning Officers to use their own judgement to determine what’s ‘reasonable’ will have detrimental unintended consequences and will almost certainly lead to a postcode lottery in the provision of assistive devices.

We were pleased that Adam Price MS submitted an amendment during stage 2 proceedings which would make provision for a legal requirement to have both a tactile and audio solution available at every polling station. Blind and partially sighted people have told us that this is the only way to guarantee that they have an independent and secret vote. In a recent trial, such accessible voting solutions enabled 93 per cent of participants to vote independently and in secret.

Accessibility Should Be a Priority

We are incredibly disappointed that the Welsh Government voted to reject this amendment. We believe this decision runs counter to everything the Welsh Government say they aim to achieve through this Bill. We challenge the Welsh Government’s suggestion that this could lead to ‘complexity for electoral administrators’ and ‘cause confusion for voters.’ It is the statutory responsibility of electoral administrators to enable all citizens to vote independently and in secret on an equal basis. We are disappointed at the suggestion that disabled people should continue to be denied their rights simply because it might cause complexity for electoral administrators.

We also strongly reject the argument that these amendments might ‘reduce flexibility in terms of meeting people’s needs’. Flexibility and variation in the provision of assistive devices is the antithesis of what blind and partially sighted people tell us they need. They need to arrive at their polling station safe in the knowledge that the essential tools and support they need will always be available. As we mentioned earlier in this letter, there are tried and tested ways blind and partially sighted people can truly vote independently and in secret, and these must be guaranteed. Accessibility should be an absolute priority for the Welsh Government, and this was a wasted opportunity to change things once and for all.

Imagine arriving at a polling station, only to find out that you are unable to cast your vote because the essential tools and support you need aren’t available. If the Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill is passed in its current form, then this will be a very real possibility for every blind or partially sighted person in Wales. More than 150 years since the Ballot Act enshrined the right to a secret vote into law, blind and partially sighted people are still forced to share their vote and hope that the person they have asked to vote on their behalf has done so. This is unacceptable.

This Bill presents an opportunity to remove the barriers blind and partially sighted people face at the ballot box and reverse 150 years of democratic exclusion. We urge you to reconsider and approve amendments which guarantee that both a tactile and audio solution will be made available at every polling station in future elections.

Kind regards,

Ansley Workman

Director, RNIB Cymru