New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
2 January 2007

Discrimination and democracy

Technology can make elections more accessible for disabled voters

By James Medhurst

The introduction of electronic voting in the recent US mid-term elections resulted in fears that some people had been disenfranchised. It was suggested that as many as 18,000 votes may not have been counted in a congressional race in Florida which was won by a margin of just 369.

Ironically, this new system was introduced following another close result in the same state, during the presidential election of 2000, in which poorly-designed paper ballots were thought to have cost a large number of voters their democratic rights.

Given the extensive coverage dedicated to these stories, it is very surprising that the widespread exclusion of disabled voters has not received the same publicity. It is estimated that half of all polling booths in Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey are physically inaccessible so the number of people affected is huge compared to those impacted by the other scandals.

The situation is similar here in the UK. The term “universal adult suffrage”, coined in the 19th century, when it excluded women, is no more accurate today. There continue to be attempts to actively prevent British citizens from voting. More than 1,400 people in Northern Ireland with learning difficulties were removed from the register prior to the 2004 European elections, many because of anonymous objections.

Also, while prisoners have now been given the vote by the European Court of Human Rights, people who have been detained under the Mental Health Act may not vote in person, even if given leave to do so. There is no evidence the voting decisions of psychiatric patients are any more eccentric than those of the tabloid-reading public, and it is clear they would have an interest in the way their care is managed, so this is an intolerable dent to democracy.

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As in America, another significant problem is the inaccessibility of the electoral process. The classic text of disability studies, ‘The Politics of Disablement’ by Mike Oliver, first published in 1990, had a cover depicting a man in a wheelchair, at the bottom of a flight of steps leading to a polling station.

Fifteen years later, a report by the charity Scope on the 2005 General Election found that 68 percent of polling stations remain inaccessible in some way. Blind people are affected as well as those with physical impairments, for there is a legal requirement to provide a tactile means of completing a ballot, and this was breached in 28 percent of cases. The alternative is for blind voters to ask officials to mark their selections for them, which undermines the secret ballot and creates a dangerous potential for fraud. There is nothing worse than a stranger expressing disapproval at your party allegiance.

Threats to privacy and the possibility of corruption are often cited as reasons to resist the use of technology and, in some cases, to prevent those who are seen as “vulnerable” from exercising their right to vote. However, little attention is given to the flaws in the current system; indeed there seems to be a Luddite opposition to progress rather than a reasoned attempt to produce fairness.

The fact is that, while genuine universal suffrage and fully accessible polling stations are fundamental necessities, the introduction of new methods of voting would also make elections easier for disabled people.

The benefits of postal and electronic voting outweigh the risks if this factor is included, despite problems in Florida. We mock the Athenians for calling their state democratic when women and slaves could not vote but it is not clear our own electoral process is any more worthy of the name.

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