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

2. Conceptual and Analytical Framework

The research approach for this study is a comparative, contemporary institutional and policy analysis. Both qualitative and quantitative data will be drawn upon and used in this project. As applied research, the intent is to understand particular state and political institutions and a specific set of socio-political activities and interactions in this case, the relation between electoral administration and participation of electors with a disability.

Information for this research project comes from existing data, research and published material from academic, governmental and non-governmental sources in Canada and other countries and from international organizations. In addition, this includes web content and related literature on electoral participation in general and more particularly on participation by electors with a disability. The literature on voting and disability encompasses newspaper articles, reports by disability groups on the accessibility of particular elections, electoral commission studies and documents, as well as academic writing, largely found in the fields of political science, disability studies, and law.

2.1  Central Concepts

The focal point for the study is disability, of which a recent international statement is used in this report. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says about disability: "Recognizing that disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others." In addition, the Convention states: "Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others."

Other central ideas in the report include:

Together, these concepts offer a framework through which electoral participation is understood as a multi-faceted system of voting methods and processes that exhibit a variety of relations between electoral management bodies and electors, and among voters with disabilities, other individuals and institutional actors, the wider social environment and public policy context. Table 1 outlines the basic elements of the conceptual focus in terms of three major dimensions of voter participation and democratic citizenship and also lists some key characteristics in each dimension.

Table 1 Basic Elements of the Conceptual Focus on Electoral Participation

Environment of Public Policy, Disability Activism, and Other Institutions

  • UN Conventions, human rights codes and disability discrimination laws
  • Litigation and court or tribunal decisions
  • Political party candidates, platforms and campaign practices
  • Public transportation services
  • Disability advocacy and service provider organizations

Electoral Framework and Practices

  • Electoral systems: first past the post, additional member system, single transferable vote, regional list system2
  • Election legislation
  • Registration processes
  • Voting technologies and methods: postal, assisted techniques
  • Voting polls and facilities
  • Election materials
  • Election officials and workers

Electors with Disabilities

  • Type and severity of disability
  • Age and other demographic characteristics
  • Living arrangements: private home, group home, supported living, nursing home
  • Immediate milieu of family, friends, neighbours, caregivers
  • Personal supports and services

While election arrangements, electors and their immediate social milieu, and the larger policy and political environment are empirically interrelated, it is important for analytical purposes to conceptualize these as separate dimensions of electoral participation. Each of these dimensions is somewhat distinctive, in reality as well, involving particular actors and groups, formal structures of professional administration and informal organizations of human relations, ideas and practices.

It may also be said that each dimension of electoral participation corresponds more or less to a particular model or viewpoint of disability. The first dimension relates especially to a social model of disability with a focus on environmental factors, including cultural beliefs and attitudes, human rights and public policy responses. The second dimension relates to a functional model of disability in which electoral practices and voting methods including election procedures, communication and outreach activities are adapted in light of varying abilities and capacities of electors. The third dimension ostensibly rests upon an individualistic and biomedical approach to disability, concentrating on the person's impairment or health condition and other individual characteristics.3

Consider the environment of public policy, voting rights activism, the state and other institutions; in short, the political and legal landscape of disability in Canada (Cameron and Valentine 2001; Rae 2010; Rioux and Prince 2002). Relevant legislation and policy, for example, in Australia includes the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 and the Commonwealth Disability Strategy of 1998; in New Zealand, the NZ Sign Language Act of 2006 is a notable feature of the policy environment for some disabled people and for public services more generally; in the UK, key legislation includes the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010, related regulations and guidelines; and in the US, relevant laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Canada, unlike these countries, does not have a national disability discrimination law or disability rights act, although the idea has been raised by community activists and federal political parties (Prince 2010). For the most part, disability policies are rooted in general laws rather than specific disability-related legislation, and much of this legislation defines disability as individual problems and bio-medical issues (McColl and Jongbloed 2006; Pothier 2006). A few Canadian provinces, specifically Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, have accessibility legislation for people with disabilities. Otherwise, framework laws most important to matters of disability and equality are the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and federal and provincial/territorial human rights laws.

Decisions by Canadian courts and human rights tribunals can figure as a significant influence on the rights of electors with disabilities, the practices of electoral management bodies and the range of voting methods. In a careful review of legal developments in the Supreme Court of Canada regarding disability, Pothier (2006, 306) suggests that "jurisprudence on disability signifies oscillations between understanding and ignorance, progress and retrenchment, hope and disappointment." Moreover, decisions by the Federal Court of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal are relevant sources of jurisprudence on issues of disability, discrimination and equality rights.

Electoral frameworks and practices are the second dimension of electoral participation. Internationally and nationally specific provisions have been included in electoral legislation that, overall, encompasses a wide variety of voting mechanisms that may assist electors with disabilities to vote through various means, including ensuring accessibility to polling stations, interpretation services at polls and assistance to electors. As well, various administrative measures have been put into place to communicate with electors with disabilities and further assist them when voting.

Electors with disabilities represent the third dimension for understanding voting participation and non-participation by this group of citizens. This relates not only to specific medical conditions and functional limitations of the individual, although these are fundamental embodied realities, but also to the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the individual elector. As the literature review in this report makes clear, the person's living arrangements and the nature of his or her immediate social milieu of family, friends, neighbours and caregivers are significant factors.

In actuality, these three dimensions of electoral participation are mixed within democratic communities. The character of this mix must be determined by empirical research. At any given point in time, different jurisdictions and election management bodies likely give prominence to one or another of these dimensions.

2.2  Research Methods

The overall approach or methodology involves five steps of research, analysis and synthesis on the electoral participation of electors with disabilities:

  1. conducting a literature review, including voter turnout and attitudes toward the electoral process, covering research done in Canada and in selected jurisdictions abroad as well as mainstream electoral participation studies;
  2. identifying gaps in the literature on electoral participation of electors with disabilities where new research is required and areas for further study;
  3. reviewing voting methods deployed by electoral management bodies in Canada and in selected jurisdictions abroad that might be useful to electors with disabilities as well as methods specifically designed to assist electors with disabilities in voting;
  4. identifying best practices deployed by electoral management bodies in communicating and reaching out to this group of electors, in Canada and in selected jurisdictions abroad; and
  5. making recommendations on best practices to reduce barriers that electors with disabilities face and how to communicate with and reach this group of electors.

A focused literature review is the central research method, and the basis for selecting and analyzing literature is guided by the analytical approach and conceptual framework described above. As an integrative survey (Cooper 1998), this literature review focuses not so much on theoretical or methodological issues, but on providing an empirical summary and synthesis of studies on electoral participation and citizens with disabilities.


1 Voting methods differ from voting systems, the latter of which Pilon (2007, 2–3) defines briefly as "the mechanism by which votes are translated into representation in our legislatures."

2 The relevance of this dimension is readily apparent among the countries surveyed in this report. In the UK, several electoral systems are in use depending on the type or level of jurisdiction. For Westminster parliamentary elections and for local elections in England and Wales, a single member plurality system (or first-past-the-post) is in use; for the Scottish parliament and National Assembly for Wales and for the Greater London Assembly, an additional member system is in effect; for the Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as the London mayoralty, a single transferable system is used; and for European elections, a regional list system is in use except for Northern Ireland, where a single transferable vote system operates. Australia, in addition to having compulsory voting, has two variants of electoral systems at the national level of the Commonwealth government: preferential voting for the House of Representatives and proportional representation (single transferable vote) for the Senate. Since 1993, New Zealand has had a mixed member proportional representation system in which electors have two votes; one called the party vote and the second the electorate vote. The electoral system in the US is perhaps most similar to the Canadian context in that, while being a presidential system of government, the US, like Canada's parliamentary system, relies on a first-past-the-post voting system. For a general discussion on the range of voting systems and electoral processes, see Pilon (2007).

3 For further discussion of these models of disability, see Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (2010, 2011); McCreath (2011); Prince (2009); Schriner and Shields (1998); and Ward, Baker and Moon (2009).