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Scottish Parliament agrees moves to make elections more accessible for voters with sight loss

Blind and partially sighted people may find it easier to vote in secret in future elections following moves agreed in the Scottish Parliament today.

During a debate on the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, amendments tabled by Graeme Dey MSP, Minister for Parliamentary Business, to pilot electronic voting methods for people with disabilities were passed, along with a requirement for the Electoral Commission to report on the assistance given to disabled voters at devolved elections.

"This will effectively ensure that all those involved in the delivery of devolved elections, or any pilot, are held to account in terms of engagement with disabled voters," Mr Dey said. "The intention is to underline the importance of ensuring a level playing field for all voters, regardless of disability, so that they can exercise their democratic right to vote securely and in private."

Sight loss charity RNIB Scotland has welcomed the move, saying this would improve the ability of blind and partially sighted people to cast their ballot without the assistance of anyone else.

Last year, the High Court of Justice ruled that present provisions for voters with sight loss in the UK were 'a parody of the election process' because they failed to allow them to vote independently and in secret.

RNIB Scotland has worked closely with the Electoral Commission for Scotland and the MSPS Colin Smyth and Jeremy Balfour in putting more accessible voting methods onto the political agenda.

However, an amendment put forward by Mr Smyth, MSP for South Scotland - to explore options for marking ballot papers with indents or other tactile means - was not passed, although - when asked by Mid-Scotland and Fife MSP Mark Ruskell if a change in the appearance of ballot papers, including indents, could be included in voting pilots - the Minister said that 'Nothing is ruled in or out'.

Mr Dey also said: "Mr Balfour, like myself and indeed Colin Smyth with his amendment, have been spurred into action by the RNIB and their report on the 2017 general election, which found that only a quarter of blind and partially sighted people were able to vote independently and in secret. That's a matter we must make progress on."

At present, only two voting aids are available for people with sight loss - a large-print ballot paper or a tactile voting device, a plastic template that fits over the ballot paper. But this can still mean people need a sighted person to guide them where to put their cross. Eight in ten people across the UK surveyed by RNIB who used a tactile voting device said that they still voted with another person.

RNIB Scotland director James Adams said: "We welcome the decision by the Scottish Parliament to look at alternative methods of voting in elections. It's simply not acceptable that people can leave their polling station unsure whether they've correctly voted for the candidate of their choice or feel obliged to ask someone else for help."

Currently, there are around 170,000 people living in Scotland with a significant degree of sight loss, and two million across the UK. While Scotland-only elections are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, powers over UK-wide elections and referendums remain reserved to Westminster.