RNIB's new "Turned Out" report exposes how inaccessible the election process can be for those with sight loss.
Urgent action must be taken to improve the experiences of blind and partially sighted voters after new research from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) found that only one in five (19 per cent) of blind voters, and less than half (46 per cent) of partially sighted voters, felt they could vote independently and in secret under the current voting system.
Additionally, less than a third of blind voters were satisfied with their voting experience in elections across the UK this year.
The charity is highlighting its concerns in a new report, Turned Out, that has launched today. It calls for the introduction of new ways to vote that will ensure people with sight loss can cast their ballot independently.
Despite being nearly 150 years since the 1872 Ballot Act, which granted the right to a secret vote, many blind and partially sighted people are still having to ask other people to help them to vote, meaning their vote isn’t private.
The standard aid currently in use is the Tactile Voting Device, a thin plastic template provided in polling stations that fits over the ballot paper. But when Ken Reid from North Berwick voted in May's Scottish Parliament elections he found the device only fitted over the first 12 of the 16 political parties on the ballot paper.
"If parties 13 to 16 had all been the minor lobby group parties, I could have been relaxed with someone knowing I wasn’t going to vote for them," said Ken, who is registered blind. "However, there was a major party in that group. As my chosen party was in the first part of the paper, I was in effect indicating that I wouldn’t be voting for that party.
"The main issues, I believe, are staff aren't yet adequately trained. They didn't know how to fix the Tactile Voting Device to the ballot paper, and the devices for both ballot papers were inadequate. One lacked the number of lines required; the other didn’t fit the paper.
"I did make a vote, but I'm really not entirely confident that I voted as I wanted to."
One alternative option under consideration by both the Scottish and UK Governments is an audio device that can be taken into the ballot box with a headset that allows individuals to listen to the candidates’ names and cast their vote independently, with no need for another person to be present.
This was trialled in the English local authority elections in Norfolk in May. Of the 11 participants who took part in the trial, 10 (over 91 per cent) reported they were satisfied with their overall voting experience. This compared with a 39 per cent satisfaction rate in the electoral process from blind and partially sighted voters across the UK.
Responsibility for running Scottish Parliament elections, local government elections and referenda in Scotland lies with the Scottish Government. RNIB Scotland is working with the Scottish Government to trial solutions for the same problem. Trials of an audio device here have been run outwith polling day with blind and partially sighted voters over video call and further potential solutions continue to be explored.
James Adams, Director of RNIB Scotland, said: “From the trials that took place in Norfolk, and supporting work done in Scotland, it is clear that the introduction of audio devices can make a huge difference to allowing people with sight loss to vote independently and in secret. We also welcome the Scottish Government's work in investigating other alternatives using new technology. We'll be working with both the UK and Scottish Governments to ensure this is an option in future elections.
"Given an astounding nine out of 10 (91 per cent) blind people, and five out of 10 (54 per cent) partially sighted people, had to get another person to help them cast their vote in a polling station, there is clearly still a long way to go before the voting system is a fully accessible and inclusive one."
RNIB has also warned that a high number of people with sight loss could be locked out of voting should photographic voter IDs be introduced. In a survey conducted by the charity, 13 per cent of blind and partially sighted people across the UK, equating to around 40,000 people, said they had no form of photo ID, including either passports or travel passes.
Mike Wordingham, Policy and Campaigns Officer at RNIB, said: “If these plans do go ahead, all communications about the requirements and application processes for IDs would need to be fully accessible. With local authorities currently not even sending poll cards in accessible formats, implementing voter ID requirements would need extensive efforts in order to reach out to people without IDs to support them in signing up.”
Find out more information on how RNIB is campaigning on accessible voting.