The right to vote is one of the most important rights and responsibilities that people have in this country.
It underpins democratic legitimacy and the very basis of our society today. However, 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 lack of accessibility in polling stations.
Scope’s ‘Polls Apart’ survey of 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 per cent improvement from the last general election, which is impossibly slow progress towards equality. 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.
According to Scope’s survey, the top three features that were missing in polling stations 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.
Postal voting has made things easier, but this is no answer for a visually impaired elector who cannot read their polling card or the guidance that accompanies it. Further, our equality legislation makes it clear that disabled people should be able to participate in society on an equal basis; a postal vote should be a choice, not the only option.
The Government is required to undertake 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.
Scope’s 2010 survey shone a light on the fact that many electors with disabilities simply cannot exercise their right to vote. To make things worse, Scope found that local authorities already knew that 14 per cent of the polling stations they had reviewed, and intended to use at the election, would not be accessible to disabled voters.
One of Scope’s recommendations, which we fully support, is for local authorities to publish polling stations’ access features in advance of the election so voters can make informed decisions about which channels of voting they want to use, and to be able to use alternative polling stations where their assigned one is inaccessible.
It is unacceptable that our electoral system is not accessible on an equal basis and that many disabled people are literally shut out of politics. We hope matters have improved for the 2015 general election, but would encourage anyone who has concerns about accessibility to speak up. It is fundamental to hold those responsible for the conduct of elections to account so people who experience discriminatory treatment can get effective redress and to ensure that the picture is improved for the future.
Kate Egerton is a solicitor at Leigh Day