Further legal action taken on provisions for blind voters

By agency reporter
April 4, 2020

Further legal action is being brought to challenge the provisions for blind voters following a judgment in May 2019 that ruled the current provisions unlawful. Since then the government has failed to make alternative arrangements for blind voters to vote independently.

Rachael Andrews, who is registered blind, is taking legal action after the government failed to implement measures that would allow her to vote independently and in secret in the December 2019 general election, despite a court judgment nearly a year ago that found the current arrangements are unlawful.
 
Mrs Andrews is now seeking a declaration from the court that the arrangements for blind and partially sighted voters at the December election breached her rights under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights read with Article 3 of the First Protocol, which protects her right to a secret ballot without discrimination. She is seeking damages and a declaration that her (and other blind and partially sighted voters) human rights were breached.
 
Mrs Andrews’ first successful challenge resulted in a damning judgment handed down by the High Court in May 2019 in which the judge described the existing arrangements as “a parody of the electoral process”.
 
The Representation of the People Act 1983 (as amended) allows the government to specify a device to be used in the polling station that allows blind and partially sighted people to vote “without any need for assistance”. Currently the government specify the use of a Tactile Voting Device (TVD), a sheet of transparent plastic which fits on top of the ballot paper and has a number of flaps that correspond to the various places on the ballot paper where voters are able to mark an ‘X’ next to candidates’ names.
 
Mrs Andrews successfully argued in her first legal case that the critical problem with the TVD is that it does not allow blind and partially sighted people to vote independently as they still need help from the Presiding Officer (the official in charge of the polling station) or a member of their close family to read to them the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper.  This information is not contained on the TVD and there is therefore no way for a blind voter to know which flap on the TVD corresponds to which candidate.
 
Mrs Andrews expected the government to introduce a new system that would have allowed her to identify the candidates and mark her ballot paper independently following the court’s judgment in May. However, when she went to cast her vote in December last year, little had changed; instead of being read the candidates’ names by the Presiding Officer, her Presiding Officer had an audio recording on his mobile phone which he played to her. She was then required to use the TVD as normal.
 
Other countries use systems that allow blind voters to vote using audio booths and telephone voting.
 
Following the December poll, Mrs Andrews said: “There was nothing independent or secret about my experience – the bottom line was that I still could not vote without assistance. I just want to vote in the same way as everyone else without sticking out or feeling like a nuisance.
 
“Fully sighted voters are able to breeze in and out in three minutes while I have to undertake stressful, humiliating and onerous processes.
 
“I can’t believe that in the 11 months since the judgment in my case, and despite all the technology available, that the government has still not come up with an adequate system (or even proposals for a system) that allow blind and visually impaired people to independently carry out one of the most important responsibilities a person has in our democracy.
 
“It is almost worse now than before the judgment because at least then the government thought they were acting lawfully. Now they know they are acting unlawfully, and are aware of the enormous impact it has on people, but have still made no real efforts to address it.”
 
Leigh Day solicitor Kate Egerton said: “The current arrangements enable a blind person to mark the ballot paper, but not to read it. There is a statutory requirement to enable blind voters to vote without any need for assistance which is simply not being met.
 
“Despite the voting arrangements for blind and partially sighted voters being found to be unlawful in May 2019, the government chose to do nothing to sort the matter out before the last general election.  Our client was, again, unable to vote without assistance on an equal basis to others. This was incredibly disappointing for Mrs Andrews who, having won a lengthy legal battle, was essentially left in the same position as she was prior to her legal case.
 
“We consider that this failure breached our client’s human right to be able to vote independently and in secret.” 

* Leigh Day https://www.leighday.co.uk/

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