by Rab Bruce’s Spider

Last year, the Scottish Government opened a consultation on the subject of accessible voting. There has, as far as I know, been no concrete development since then, but voting in the EU elections on Thursday reminded me of just how inaccessible voting is for disabled people in general and the visually impaired in particular.

I always have a sighted guide to take me to the polling station. This time, my daughter accompanied me. Over the past couple of years, the staff on duty have come to expect my arrival and usually have the tactile voting device ready. This time, perhaps because it was different people on duty, I had to ask specifically for it, even though it is pretty obvious to any sighted person that I am blind. They did not ask whether I wanted a Braille or large print ballot paper, and only went searching for the tactile device when I asked for it. They did manage to locate it and my daughter escorted me to a booth.

For those who don’t know what a tactile device is, it’s a sheet of plastic which fits over the ballot paper. There are square flaps on the right hand side, each of them numbered with raised digits. The idea is that you lift the appropriate flap and mark your cross in the box, using the tactile open square as a guide to where the paper should be marked.

This system has a number of very significant flaws. First, how do you know which square you need to mark? Reading the paper can be very difficult indeed even using a scanning app. I tried reading this one and all I heard was a very long list of names. I very quickly became confused as to which box I needed to mark. This meant my daughter had to read the ballot paper to me. Of course, since she knew how I was going to vote, it was simply a case of her telling me which number I needed, but if she had not been there, a member of the polling station staff would have had to read the entire paper to me. In the past, some staff have offered to do this, but I received no such offer this time.

As for actually voting, using the tactile device is not easy. I have used this system before and, as far as I know, have managed it OK. This time, however, it turned out the squares on the device were larger than the boxes on the ballot paper. My daughter watched me mark the paper and said I’d missed the box. She then queried it with the staff who advised it might count as a spoiled paper, so I had to wait for another ballot paper. This time, my daughter marked it for me.

This is a travesty of the concept of a secret ballot. I have no problem with my daughter knowing my preference, but if I had been on my own, a member of the polling station staff would know precisely how I had voted. On this occasion, they do know as they have my first, failed attempt at voting as evidence of my choice. Not that my vote for the SNP is a great secret, but that’s not the point.

From browsing Twitter, I know that I was not the only visually impaired person to have a problem voting. Many more joined my complaint about the problems of using the tactile device. In London, where a great many candidates were listed on the ballot, the ballot paper and matching tactile device were very large indeed, creating a significant practical problem of how to place the ballot on a suitable flat surface so that the tactile device could be used at all.

It has already been proven in court that this system contravenes the rights of visually impaired people to a secret vote. The options of large print and Braille ballot papers help if people have some sight or can read Braille, but not many visually impaired people read Braille, and large print is no help if you have no sight at all.

So what is the answer? Electronic voting machines can be made accessible with speech output relayed through headphones, but many people believe these machines can be tampered with. However, with many apps requiring Face ID or Fingerprint ID on a phone, I fail to see why an online voting system using accessible technology cannot be introduced. This would benefit many disabled people, not only those who are visually impaired. Far too many polling stations are physically inaccessible to wheelchair users which is, quite frankly, inexcusable in this day and age. Allowing people to vote online would also, I am convinced, significantly increase voter participation. Electoral turnout is far too low in the UK, and I’m sure many more people would vote if they could do so via their phone or tablet.

It’s about time the system was radically revised, and I do hope that the Scottish Government’s consultation will result in voting in an independent Scotland being far more accessible than the current UK system.