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Court decision prompts calls for new voting tech for blind people

07/05/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

A High Court decision has stirred up demands for the Government to provide new technology solutions to support blind and partially sighted voters in elections.

3D tick in box

The ruling said the current provision of a tactile voting device (TVD) is not enough to help them vote without any assistance at a polling station.

This has prompted calls for the use of more advanced technology to enable blind people to vote independently.

The case was brought by Rachael Andrew, who has been registered blind since 2000, arguing that the TVD could not provide sufficient assistance.

The device is a sheet of transparent plastic that fits on top of the ballot paper and has flaps corresponding to the places where voters mark an X next to candidates’ names. A number of problems have been reported with polling stations either not having TVDs or the devices being the wrong size for a particular ballot paper.

Andrew successfully argued that there is a more fundamental problem in that the user still needs help from a presiding officer or family member to read the names on the ballots.

The High Court judgement stated that this “does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote” as the blind person could not independently identify the candidate they wished to vote for.

Need for new solutions

The result prompted Sean Humber, solicitor at Leigh Day which represented Andrew, to say this amounts to a big shortcoming on the Government’s part, and to call for new solutions to be adopted.

“The fact that the technology exists and is used in other countries to allow blind people to vote independently, makes the Government’s inflexibility all the more unacceptable,” he said, adding: “The Government now needs to stop dragging its feet and take urgent action to comply with this judgment.”

He pointed to studies by the European Blind Union highlighting different technologies, including a telephone dictation system in New Zealand and the use of an audio CD and braille for some German elections.

Sarah Lambert, head of social change at charity the Royal National Institute for the Blind, said: “We do believe that options should be brought forward to provide an online and/or telephone option for blind and partially sighted people to cast their vote independently and in secret and this does happen in other parts of the world.”

She pointed to examples such as Belgium’s use of electronic machines that prints out a physical slip for verifying and counting. Some of these have audio and braille outputs, and audio tools and tactile buttons have been trialled in some areas.

Estonia uses an internet voting system that, according to the European Blind Union Expert Survey, is generally accessible to blind and partially sighted users.

Australia uses telephone voting as a specific option for blind people. Those wishing to use the service contact a dedicated phone number when they register and receive a unique ID, which they then use anonymously in contacting a call centre. An operator reads out the ballot and manually records the vote with the second person supervising the process.

“For RNIB, it is also important to make sure that this isn’t the only way the Government makes voting accessible to blind and partially sighted people,” Lambert said, adding: “350,000 people registered blind or partially sighted in the UK now need a real commitment from Government that it will urgently take action to offer an alternative that will allow them to cast their vote in a truly independent and secret way in the next elections.”

Image from League of Women Voters of California, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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