Select Committee on Home Affairs Appendices to Minutes of Evidence (Volume II)


Appendix 4

Memorandum by the Royal National Institute for the Blind

Electoral Law and Administration

1.  INTRODUCTION

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 basis.

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.  REGISTERING TO VOTE

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.  PUBLICISING ELECTION ARRANGEMENTS

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 voting:

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 clerks.

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 PROXY VOTING

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 POLLING CARD INFORMATION

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 THE DAY WITH ASSISTANCE FROM FULLY SIGHTED COLLEAGUES

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 assistance also.

7.  VOTING ON THE DAY WITH ASSISTANCE FROM POLLING STATION STAFF

7.1  A similar change in the law would also enable polling station staff to assist partially sighted as well as blind people

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 General Election:

7.3  Home Office guidance needs to be kept under review and updated on a regular basis

8.  VOTING INDEPENDENTLY ON THE DAY

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 elections.

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 warning—the 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 A CIVIL RIGHT

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 vote.

Should you require any further information please contact either Jo Brading (See it Right Officer) or Alun Thomas (Parliamentary Officer)

March 1998


 
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