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Turned Out 2019 report reveals worrying difficulties in exercising a democratic right

The majority of blind and partially sighted people in the UK are still unable to vote independently or in secret, according to figures released by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) today.

The charity found that only 13 per cent of blind voters, and less than half of partially sighted voters (44 per cent), said that they were able to vote independently and in private in the 2019 General Election. A further two-thirds (61 per cent) of blind people, and a third (32 per cent) of partially sighted people, had to get another person to help them to vote.

As well as uncovering problems with casting a vote, the RNIB research also highlights issues with the accessibility of voting information. More than half (53 per cent) of blind people, and 15 per cent of partially sighted people, reported that they couldn’t read any of the voting information sent to them by their local council, such as polling cards.

Eleanor Southwood, chair of trustees at RNIB, said: “Despite ten years since the Equality Act and twenty-five years since the Disability Discrimination Act, we are still not able to exercise our fundamental human right to take part in the government of our country without relying on the support of others.”

Currently, around 178,000 people live 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.

The current device used to make ballot papers accessible for blind and partially sighted voters – the Tactile Voting Device– was declared unlawful in May 2019 in a case brought by campaigner Rachael Andrews and law firm Leigh Day. In the judgement, Mr Justice Swift said, “enabling a blind voter to mark ballot papers without being able to know which candidate she is voting for is a parody of the electoral process”, saying that to meet legal obligations a device “must allow the blind voter to mark the ballot paper against the name of her candidate of choice… without any need for assistance".

Ken Reid (60) from North Berwick is registered blind. He has used both the Tactile Voting Device and braille ballot papers on several occasions. “When voting in the 2019 General Election, I had to ask staff members at the polling station to reposition the Tactile Voting Device twice before I could cast my vote," he said. "Even then, I left the polling station not sure if I’d cast the vote I wanted.”

Terry Moody (76), a retired lecturer from Glasgow, is also registered blind. "I go to the polling station with my sighted partner, trusting her to tick my preferred box. Of course, I'd prefer to do this myself in secret. All blind people should have that right, which is why we need to find ways of making ballot papers accessible for all. People should also have the right to vote from home if that is what they prefer, and I imagine the best way of achieving that is through some form of telephone voting system."

In June, amendments that RNIB Scotland has pushed for in the Scottish Elections Reform Bill were passed with support from all parties represented in the Scottish Parliament. It was agreed that accessible voting methods would be piloted and that the Electoral Commission would report on the assistance given to disabled voters at devolved Scottish elections.

Craig Westwood, director of communications, policy and research at the Electoral Commission, said: “The Turned Out report is important in understanding the voting experience of blind and partially sighted voters.

“Everyone, no matter their circumstances, should be able to take part in elections and cast their vote with confidence; but we know that some blind and partially sighted people still face barriers to voting. Ahead of the May 2021 elections, we are working with partners including RNIB to ensure that all voters are aware of the resources and support available to allow them to vote independently and confidently.”