Memorandum by the Royal National Institute
for the Blind
Electoral Law and Administration
1.1 There are nearly one million blind and partially
sighted adults in the UK who are registerable as blind or partially
sighted with their Social Services or equivalent department. A
further 700,000 people have difficulties in reading newsprint
but whose eyesight is not sufficiently bad for them to be registered
as partially sighted ("Blind and partially sighted adults;
the RNIB survey"Bruce et al, HMSO 1991)
1.2 Two thirds of visually impaired people are
aged over 75, many of whom have additional disabilities such as
hearing impairment or arthritis.
1.3 Nearly half visually impaired people live
alone and do not have immediate access to assistance from fully
sighted people. Older people are more likely to depend on assistance
from statutory sources outside the immediate household. It should
not therefore be assumed that visually impaired people can access
printed mail and respond to tight deadlines.
1.4 Differing eye conditions and the onset of
visual impairment have an impact on attitudes and actions. Individual
needs will therefore vary according to circumstances.
1.5 Contrary to common myths, the majority of
blind and partially sighted people have some residual sight at
the very least and the majority can access clear print. Braille
is an important medium for the 19,000 people who use it on a regular
1.6 RNIB has been working with the Home Office
in recent years to develop guidance to electoral administrators
on assisting visually impaired people voting in person. We have
also worked with the Association of Electoral Administrators to
increase awareness of the needs of blind and partially sighted
people. RNIB has also advised the Scottish, Northern Ireland,
and Welsh Offices on the conduct of elections and referenda.
2.1 Suffice to say, visually impaired people
cannot exercise their vote unless they are able to register their
vote in the first instance. RNIB believes that the introduction
of a rolling electoral register would be beneficial.
2.2 RNIB is encouraged that there have been improvements
in the design of forms in recent times. Some local authorities
such as Waltham Forest comfortably meet clear print standards
on their forms. However, there are numerous examples of forms
which are extremely poorly designed for visually impaired people.
For example, a local authority in Wales produced a bilingual form
in very small print recently, with minimal means of identifying
between the two languages used. Such a poorly designed form would
have posed immense difficulties to a person with poor sight.
2.3 All registration forms should be designed
in line with RNIB Clear Print Guidelines and in Large Print
2.4 Some blind people simply would not be able
to access a clear print form. The provision of electoral information
should be regarded as a confidential matter (on a parr with financial
and health information), and blind people should have a means
of accessing and supplying the information independently. Braille,
tape and disk formats of the registration forms should be available
without undue delay if requested. Where forms have to be signed,
alternative arrangements should apply for visually impaired people
eg waiving the requirement, or providing assistance with signing
through home visits or when visiting the office.
2.5 Telephone helplines/contact points should
be established for electors to request forms or receive assistance
with completion of forms
2.6 Whatever initiatives are taken to make the
registration process more user-friendly for blind and partially
sighted people, these initiatives must be communicated to visually
impaired people in the forms of media which they normally access.
The registration process and sources of help should be published
through local societies for the Blind, Talking Newspapers, the
Internet and local radio stations.
2.7 Processes should be in place to ensure that
a visually impaired person can check their entry on the register
by telephone or by having the information communicated verbally
at the office.
3.1 Traditionally, more effort has been made
to inform ex-patriate voters of their rights as compared to disabled
voters in the UK. It is not surprising therefore that some visually
impaired people think that their disability precludes them from
William, aged 85, from Suffolk has been blind from
birth but he has never voted in his life because he assumes "it's
impossible for blind people to vote".
3.2 It is important that electoral officers avoid
making blanket assumptions on how visually impaired people will
exercise their right to vote. Traditionally, it has been assumed
that blind people register postal or proxy votes and many will
continue to do so. However, a growing number wish to vote in person
on the day with or without assistance from colleagues and polling
3.3 Electoral arrangements such as the deadlines
for submitting postal vote forms should be publicised through
local societies for the Blind, Talking Newspapers, the Internet
and local radio stations.
4. POSTAL AND
4.1 Comments on registration forms apply equally
to forms for registering postal and proxy votes.
All postal vote forms should be designed in line
with RNIB Clear Print Guidelines and in Large Print
Braille, tape and disk formats of the forms should
be available without undue delay if requested. Where forms have
to be signed, alternative arrangements should apply for visually
impaired people eg waiving the requirement, or providing assistance
with signing through home visits or when visiting the office.
Requests for non-print versions of forms should be
built into the planning of deadlines for their submission.
4.2 Special care is needed when designing forms
for coinciding elections so that they can be separately identified
whilst complying with best practice in terms of clear print standards.
5. ACCESS TO
5.1 Polling cards often arrive a few days in
advance of the election. However, cards can be lost in all the
other similar forms of printed mail which a visually impaired
person receives. By the time a blind person living alone has received
assistance in reading printed mail, the election might be over.
5.2 By providing information in advance, visually
impaired people voting in person should be made aware that a card
will be posted to them. Advance information should include the
form of the card (an indication of its size), and an indication
of the type of information on the card. For visually impaired
voters in Northern Ireland advance notice should be given of the
forms of identification needed for voting on the day.
5.3 Ideally polling cards should include a tactile
form of identification so that they can be distinguished from
low priority postal items, and a tactile telephone number to contact
for polling station location and opening hours.
5.4 Visually impaired people should be able to
receive the location and directions to their local polling station
over the telephone.
6. VOTING ON
6.1 Under the 1983 Representation of the People
Act, registered blind people are entitled to have assistance from
a colleague in completing their ballot paper. No fully sighted
person can act as assistant for more than two blind people, and
the assistant has to come from the same constituency as the blind
person. Whilst there is a growing trend amongst visually impaired
people away from voting with assistance to voting in person, some
partially sighted people needing assistance are technically unable
to do so. This is likely to be of particularly importance to an
older partially sighted person with additional disabilities.
6.2 Consideration should be given to a change
in the law enabling registered partially sighted people to receive
7. VOTING ON
7.1 A similar change in the law would also enable
polling station staff to assist partially sighted as well as blind
7.2 Indications are that the production of Home
Office guidance has contributed to improving attitudes towards
blind and partially sighted people amongst election staff. However,
RNIB was alerted to some examples of poor practice at the 1997
7.3 Home Office guidance needs to be kept under
review and updated on a regular basis
8. VOTING INDEPENDENTLY
8.1 A growing number of young visually impaired
people and people who have lost their sight in later life want
to exercise the right to vote independently on the day with their
fully sighted peers. A series of changes are needed in legislation
and in relation to good practice to facilitate this.
8.1.1 Clear, large print on ballot papers. RNIB believes
that increasing the size and clarity of ballot papers will assist
all voters. We recognise that the production of single large print
ballot papers pose difficulties in that there would be a theoretical
possibility of identifying how a partially sighted person had
voted if only one large print form had been filled in. Increasing
the size of the print on all ballot papers is RNIB's preferred
option Careful thought should be given to ballot papers for coinciding
8.1.2 Using large print notices. As an interim measure,
RNIB would support equipping polling stations with large print
reference copies of the ballot form itself for partially sighted
electors. However, the vague definition of "notice"
under the 1983 Representation of the People Act prevents this.
RNIB advocates a change in the law so that large print reference
copies of the ballot forms can be stored at polling stations and
made available on request.
8.1.3 Innovative solutions. One method commonly used
in the Manchester area to enable blind people to vote independently
is to introduce a series of vertical and horizontal folds to the
ballot paper with the polling clerk reading out the names in sequence
within each individual fold. RNIB is aware that objections to
innovations of this type mirror those for individual large print
ballot papers. However, we are of the opinion that objections
could be overcome if a paper folding solution becomes more commonplace.
The beauty of innovations of this nature is that they incur no
cost and minimal inconvenience whilst meeting the need of providing
a "secret ballot" for the visually impaired person.
"Folding ballots" should be promoted as a good practice
solution, especially in areas where there is likely to be more
than one user.
Electoral guidance should encourage the placing of
a white strip around ballot boxes to enable a visually impaired
person to easily locate the slot.
8.1.4 Templates and "high tech" solutions.
The vast majority of blind people could vote independently by
using a template. Already templates are commonplace in banks enabling
blind people to sign cheques. RNIB has seen prototype designs
of templates incorporating Braille and large print which are fixed
to the ballot paper. The Representation of the People Act does
not currently specify that templates can be used. A change in
the law is needed to enable templates to be used. RNIB take the
view that templates could be used initially as a pilot in a few
local authority areas.
Other options can also be deployed such as using
a tape recorder in the polling station with a tape listing candidates
in order on the ballot. If the needs of visually impaired people
are considered at planning stage, electronic voting may benefit
some blind and partially sighted people. However, a word of warningthe
majority of visually impaired people are older and may not be
attracted with over-elaboration.
8.1.5 Lighting and signage. RNIB is very satisfied
with the clarity of signs used to identify polling stations. Routes
from the entrance to the polling area should be kept simple and,
where possible, lighting levels should be adequate and consistent
from the entrance to the polling area itself. Booths should be
located to maximise the use of natural daylight. Guidance should
continue to give practical ideas on lighting and signage.
9. VOTING AS
9.1 Access to voting is clearly viewed as a service
under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. This means that
it is unlawful for blind and partially sighted people to be treated
unfairly for a reason related to their disability. In time service
providers will also have to make a series of changes to make the
voting process more accessible to visually impaired people. RNIB
believes that taking the steps outlined in this response will
stand service providers in good stead with incorporating best
practice as well as complying with the legislation. RNIB would
be happy to work with the Home Office and Association of Electoral
Administrators on how best to comply with the legislation.
9.2 Through the Human Rights Bill, the European Convention
on Human Rights will be incorporated into British law. Article
3 of the First Protocol to the ECHR states:
"The High Contracting Parties undertake
to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot,
under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the
opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature".
9.3 It does seem quite clear that those blind people
who cannot read print are currently being deprived of their right
to participate in a "secret" ballot. The Article means
that the onus should be on the Government to comply with its obligations
under the Convention to ensure that visually impaired people can
vote secretly on the day of the election as well as by postal
Should you require any further information please
contact either Jo Brading (See it Right Officer) or Alun Thomas