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Electoral Participation of Electors with Disabilities: Canadian Practices in a Comparative Context

Note to the Reader

This paper was prepared by Michael Prince, University of Victoria, for Elections Canada. The observations and conclusions are those of the author.

Executive Summary

This report addresses three main research questions: What barriers do people with disabilities, physical and/or mental, face when trying to vote? What reforms have countries and, in the case of Canada, provinces introduced since 2000 to reduce or eliminate barriers to voting for people with disabilities? More specifically, what services, supports and laws or standards have governments introduced to ensure better access to voting by electors with disabilities? The specific focus of this report is on the right to vote, rather than on the right to freely associate as an activist or to run as a candidate and to hold elected office. Five national jurisdictions are reviewed in this report, specifically Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand. On Canada, attention is given to developments and practices at the federal, and provincial and territorial levels of government.

Electoral participation is conceptualized in regards to three dimensions. First, the environment of policy, court decisions, legislation, and disability group actions. The latter group comprises an independent feature of electoral participation. Secondly, the practices of electoral management bodies, including the voting methods deployed, especially those methods specifically designed to assist electors with disabilities with voting. Thirdly, the electors themselves and those individuals and groups, such as family, friends and others, in their immediate support network.

Electoral participation comprises a whole set of rules and voting techniques, procedures, levels of interaction and networks of relationships. What appears to be required is a threefold approach that addresses electoral administration, electors and their immediate context of everyday life, and larger environmental conditions of public attitudes, public policies and legislation, and the role of civil society organizations. For many electoral commissions across democratic nations, the focus has been on improvements to the accessibility of registering and voting.

Through litigation, lobbying and other democratic means, disability groups in Canada, Australia, the UK, the US and other nations have taken action to remove obvious barriers to electoral participation and to improve the administration of elections and the electoral process. Election campaigns are a strategic opportunity for groups to test by experience the legal guarantees of equality and accessibility; to disseminate information about disability-related issues (and other public policy matters, too); to promote certain recommendations and preferred solutions for better meeting human needs; to petition candidates and political parties; and to raise awareness of the mass media and, through these agencies, voters and the public more generally. Many improvements to electoral processes and administration have taken place in Canada and other nations that benefit the participation of electors with disabilities. Various promising practices in electoral administration have been identified and are worth consideration by jurisdictions that presently do not offer such outreach services or options in accessible and inclusive voting methods.

It is problematic to assume that there is a single "gold standard" in electoral participation a standard that is often seen as voting in person, inside a polling station, without assistance, in secret, on election day, and regardless of one's disability and needs. That formulation definitely expresses a number of cherished values. However, it risks establishing a one best way to vote, of projecting a universal idea that is too abstract, and too disembodied and distant from the diversities of human communities. Such a universal ideal renders invisible the circumstances, and the obstacles and barriers faced, by many citizens with disabilities. We must therefore be cautious in drawing hard and fast conclusions as to what works and what are exemplary practices. Assumptions of one-size-fits-all solutions are tricky given the complexities, variety and continual changes in electoral systems and practices and in political contexts around the world.

Most nations worldwide disqualify people from voting based on mental incapacity. In the US, if a person with a mental or cognitive impairment is assigned a guardian, the disabled person can face an automatic legal exclusion from the right to vote. In Australia and New Zealand, medical certifications are often used to disqualify individuals with mental impairments from voting. While there have been legislative reforms in the UK to protect the rights of people deemed to have learning or intellectual disabilities, exclusions still take place. Canada is one of just a few countries worldwide with no statutory exclusion based on mental incapacity.

Still other barriers to voting by electors with disabilities continue to exist in all the countries surveyed for this report. This is evident by the several studies noted in the report which, across various countries, jurisdictions and types of electoral systems, point to the under-representation of people with disabilities as voters in elections. Barriers to voting are not exclusively or predominantly explicable in terms of individual impairments. Moreover, the access of electoral systems is not explained simply by reference to the presence of an array of voting methods. Rather, the accessibility of, and opportunity for voting by people with disabilities depends on a number of policy, environmental and social factors. Looking ahead, therefore, to a more robust agenda of reforms to enhance the participation of electors with disabilities, the focus must be on the life of persons with disabilities and the role that key actors in civil society can and do play in facilitating civic engagement.

A fundamental finding from this report is that different models of disability co-exist within and around electoral rules, procedures, practices and overall systems. Electoral arrangements in Canada, as well as in other developed democracies, incorporate three distinct models of disability: an individualistic and biomedical approach to disability, a functional model of disability and a social model of disability. These different models have distinctive implications for addressing barriers and making access and inclusion real for voters with disabilities. In recent decades, electoral management bodies and governments have been undertaking changes to election processes, expanding the range of voting methods for electors with disabilities and taking other steps to facilitate civic engagement. In general, these changes are shifting the mix of disability models embedded in electoral systems, away from individual and medical conceptions and toward the functional and social conceptions of disability.

Electoral reforms have addressed several different broad categories of impairments: electors with permanent disabilities, serious illness or infirmity; electors with physical mobility issues; electors with hearing challenges; electors with visual impairments; and electors with any significant disability, whether chronic or episodic in nature, visible or invisible in appearance.

The report offers recommendations designed to reduce barriers that electors with disabilities face, and how to communicate with and more effectively reach this group of electors. Any recommendations must meet the test of fostering the effective involvement of people with disabilities in political and public life, including electoral participation, on an equal basis with other Canadian citizens.

Thus, it is recommended that Elections Canada review all of its electoral policies and procedures, and administrative rules and practices in terms of the principles, articles and obligations in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Elections Canada should introduce an employee training program for election workers about raising awareness around disability issues and sensitivity issues for disabled electors. The aim of awareness training is to correct misconceptions, to combat stereotypes and to counsel staff in the rights recognized in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, so as to better provide services. Elections Canada should also seek statutory responsibility to undertake reports on the level of accessibility of polling stations, the type of accessibility equipment used, the type of alternative technologies deployed and the availability of reports in accessible format.

In terms of strengthening outreach, Elections Canada should approach the major political parties at the national level to consult on how to ensure, through information guides and other policy tools, that all candidate meetings are accessible in such matters as location of meetings, advertising, signage and assistive services. Similarly, Elections Canada ought to consider underpinning its relationships with national organizations representing persons with disabilities, including the involvement of disabled electors in post-election assessments or evaluations of electoral practices and experiences, and in identifying gaps and priorities to reduce barriers as well as plans for improving accessibility. This working relationship might be done through a disability advisory group to Elections Canada.