My Secret Ballot – Des Kenny
The 26th of February, 2016, will see voters coming to and going from polling stations in the 40 electoral areas. All will be going with their minds made up as to which candidates will receive their precious vote. They will leave with having cast that vote in secrecy. While in the polling station, they will refresh their choices by consulting the ballot paper before marking it with their preferences, fold the paper and drop it into the ballot box – all done with maximum privacy and in absolute secrecy. But this privacy and secrecy is denied to me.
When going to my local polling station, I must bring along what is called a “trusted friend” whom I will ask to read the names on the paper to me before I instruct them to mark my preferences. While we are talking in low voices in the “booth”, I am sure that my choices can be over-heard and my secret ballot is not truly secret. All of this arises from the fact I am blind, and because I have no option but to use this antiquated method of casting my vote. I am offered none of the other technology pathways by means of which my vote could be cast by me, by myself and done in absolute privacy.
From the time I cast my first vote in elections nearly fifty years ago, each time I’ve gone to exercise my franchise, I have had to do so with varying interpretations of the assistance I required. There was a time when presiding officers in the polling stations insisted that they were the only persons to meet the “trusted Friend” status. There were times also when the release to me of the ballot paper was questioned by officious people at the table who sought guidance from a presiding officer as to whether or not I could vote at all.
When the prospect of electronic voting was mooted, I felt that at last a system of voting was going to be introduced which would allow me to vote on my own. But long before the generality of this new technology was rejected by the electorate, the add-on facility in the design of the machines to allow for speech or any form of tactile outputs had been dismissed as too great an additional expense for so few citizens in the electorate who really needed these add-ons. Where electronic voting is in use, the machines are accessible to persons who are blind.
It’s not that ways haven’t been found in other jurisdictions for people who are blind to cast their votes with the very minimum of assistance. In 2014, the National Disability Authority tested a number of low-cost technological solutions with focus groups of persons with blindness or who were experiencing severe visual impairments. The methods tested were in use either in Australia or in the United Kingdom. Text voting or guided electronic telephony exists in Australia. A Braille template is employed in United Kingdom elections. The impression had been given by the franchise unit of the Department of Environment that one of these new approaches would be tested in the last round of EU elections but this did not come to pass. Another round of taking us to the top of the hill of promises and leading us down again to the bottom of the same disappointments which prove that we are not perceived as being equal and that third-parties have the right to mediate choices for us, including or not (in my case) the secrecy of my ballot on the 26th of February.