The right to vote is one of the most important rights and responsibilities that people over the age of 18 have in this country; it underpins democratic legitimacy and the very basis of our society today. It is therefore crucial that everyone can exercise their right to vote, regardless of any disability.
However, as the general election draws nearer, Frances Ryan writing in yesterday’s Guardian reminds us that while most of us will take our legal right to cast our ballot for granted, many disabled people will be barred from the democratic process because of dire accessibility in polling stations.
According to Scope’s last Polls Apart survey, which reports after every general election, there are over 10 million disabled people in the UK and on average each parliamentary constituency contains 15,000 disabled voters; a fifth of their total electorate.
However, the survey that followed the 2010 general election found that an astonishing 67% of polling stations had one or more significant access barriers to disabled voters. This depressing statistic was just a 1% improvement from the last election. At this rate, people with a disability will have to wait until 2345 to exercise their basic democratic rights on an equal basis.
We are not just talking about physical access for people in wheelchairs, but also access for people who have a visual impairment or a learning disability.
Postal voting has made things easier, but despite legislation and guidance that has created the impetus for significant improvement, Scope’s survey found that the implementation and enforcement of this on the ground falls far short.
According to the survey, the main features that were missing in polling stations in the 2010 general election were:
- A tactile voting device for visually impaired voters.
- A large print version of the ballot paper.
- Level access into the polling station, including an adequate ramp.
- A low level polling booth.
- Registration documents and a polling card that was easy to read and understand.
The Government is required by law to undertake specific legislative and practical measures to ensure that voting is accessible to disabled voters. The Human Rights Act protects the right to a secret ballot, and the Equality Act makes it unlawful for service providers and public authorities to discriminate against individuals on account of their disability. Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which the UK is a signatory, also provides that the Government should guarantee, on an equal basis, the full enjoyment of the right to vote by disabled people.
Despite these legal requirements, Scope’s survey described some disabled voters having to compromise their right to secrecy by voting outside the polling station or by asking others to mark their ballot paper for them, whilst many with visual impairments and learning difficulties expressed concern that they may have accidentally spoiled their ballots. In the worst cases some were unable to vote at all.
Scope found that local authorities already knew that 14% of the polling stations they had reviewed for accessibility, and intended to use at the election, would not be accessible to disabled voters.
This is clearly unacceptable and whether the public spending cuts that we have witnessed over the past five years will have a further impact on the already squeezed budgets of the electoral services remains to be seen.
The story doesn’t end there. Research by the disability charity Livability found that not only polling stations, but also constituency offices, are inaccessible. Ironically, according to Frances Ryan’s article, Disability News Service recently found that Mark Harper’s office (the disability minister) is not accessible; she makes the excellent point that: “According to a recent Benefits and Work general election survey, 84% of sick and disabled benefit claimants say the coalition government has made their lives worse or much worse. In this climate, where disabled people have been hit harder than any other group, being prevented from going to your MP or casting your vote takes on a new edge. The only thing worse than being kicked repeatedly is being kicked repeatedly while being stopped from fighting back.”
Our electoral system remains largely inaccessible and many disabled people are literally shut out of politics. We await the results of the Polls Apart survey following this year’s general election and hope that the Government has heeded Scope’s message for improved accessibility.
We would encourage anyone who has concerns about accessibility in their polling station to contact their local authority or seek legal advice in advance of the general election so that everyone, regardless of disability, has the chance to exercise their democratic right to vote on 7 May.
As Scope make clear, it is fundamental to hold those responsible for the conduct of elections and the provision of electoral services to account so people who experience poor or discriminatory treatment can get effective redress and to ensure that the picture is improved for the future.