Electoral Participation of Electors with Disabilities: Canadian Practices in a Comparative Context
The election system does not rest on only one public value or political principle. The ideas that affect electoral practices are several, raising the practical realities of needing to rank objectives, to attain a balance between them, and to manage trade-offs as well. The literature identifies the values of increasing the enfranchisement of electors with disabilities; and raising voting participation and turnout; maintaining the integrity of the individual vote against risks of fraud, abuse, deception or manipulation, and also the integrity of the overall election system as free and fair voting – thereby fostering confidence and trust in the electoral system and the wider political system (Beckett 2006; Karlawish and Bonnie 2007, 905–10).
Best practices refer to any progressive development in electoral administration, outreach and communications that advances the electoral awareness, access and participation of people with disabilities as voters. Best practices in election administration and outreach, from the perspective of disability rights, must be consistent with principles of accessibility, individual autonomy, community inclusion, respect for the inherent capacity and dignity of people, privacy in casting a ballot, and also assistance in voting, at the request of electors with disabilities, by a person of their own choice. Many progressive reforms in electoral outreach and communications are in the early stages of implementation and evaluation.
It is problematic to assume that there is a single "gold standard" in electoral participation – a standard that is often seen is 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.
Voting is commonly understood to be a personal act done in secret. It is, of course, also a political act. Together, it is a private decision exercising a public right or obligation. Furthermore, we know that voting is a physical act, the human body in action mediated by the accessibility of election materials and of polling stations and the venues in which they are situated. Increasingly, it seems casting a ballot is a technological and social act, especially for electors with disabilities – with various techniques and humans acting as supports to enable participation. On this last point, the Electoral Assistance Commission, a federal government organization in the US, in 2010 launched an Accessible Voting Technology Initiative. This initiative provided grants to support research on transformative technologies that will make voting more accessible to all electors, including Americans with cognitive, mental and physical disabilities (US Election Assistance Commission 2010a).
A general trend both across and within nations is the move to adopt alternative ways of voting intended to enhance the electoral involvement of people with disabilities, and other groups, historically under-represented in democratic politics and elections. As seen in the previous section, the extent of diversification in voting methods varies markedly among the five nations reviewed here. This variation is also noted in election outreach services. On alternative voting channels, the most limited national system appears to be the one in the UK. Ironically, the UK took leadership in piloting e-voting techniques, but since has not followed through with wider reforms along these lines. The most expansive election system in offering a repertoire of voting methods is probably Canada, among the five countries surveyed.
On outreach services to electors with disabilities, all five countries are actively engaged one way or another in the provision of these sorts of informational, education and accessibility services. The desired outcomes of education and information campaigns by electoral management bodies are threefold: to promote public awareness of election processes and the availability of voting options; to bolster public belief and confidence in the electoral process; and to foster participation in voting. Outreach activities are those forms of information and other services to groups, such as disabled electors, that might otherwise be neglected or inadequately served. For disabled electors, these services and communications must be in accessible formats (World Health Organization 2011).
A best practice with respect to communication is when the statutory mandate of the electoral management body includes responsibilities for educating and informing voters, for undertaking or sponsoring research on electoral participation, and initiating outreach activities to groups with low levels of voter turnout. These constitute proactive functions that complement and extend beyond the conventional administrative and regulatory powers of these bodies to maintain voter rolls, conduct elections, enforce voting laws and regulations, register political parties and monitor parties' election expenditures.
The Electoral Commission in the UK, for instance, recently funded a three-year research project done by United Response, a national disability organization, on how to enhance the electoral participation of people with learning disabilities and people with other impairments. This project contributed to a national campaign led by the disability organization, in conjunction with mobilizing political parties and candidates, to get the vote out for the 2010 general elections, with notable success in raising voter turnout among electors with learning disabilities (United Response 2010). In New Zealand, to cite a different kind of outreach to the disability community, the Electoral Commission's recruitment policy provides that election staff should reflect the community. Thus, one initiative is that all advertisements for election staff will state that applications from disabled people are welcome. As well, the Commission endeavours to use disability group premises as voting places.
The adoption of a disability access and inclusion lens may be thought of as a macro-level best practice. This refers to a perspective on mainstreaming that is intended to inform the organizational culture and work practices of an electoral management body and the wider election system. It is a strategic tool for being practical, affirmative and inclusive on matters of electoral administration and electoral participation.
A case in point is the Western Australia Electoral Commission, which has a Disability Access and Inclusion Plan. Guided by the Western Australia Disability Services Act 1993, among other policy statements, the intent of this Plan is to ensure that the needs of electors with disabilities are both routinely and fully considered and that access requirements are a priority of the Commission. Developed in consultation with people with disabilities and their representative stakeholder organizations, the Plan applies to the Commission and its officers and employees as well as its agents and contractors (casual and contract staff). The Plan, which covers the period 2007 to 2012, comprises several parts: a statement of principles, objectives, six desired outcomes, and action plans with timelines for implementation.18 The Plan is to be reviewed every five years, with evaluation reports made public (Western Australia Electoral Commission 2011).
In the Canadian context, Elections Ontario has an Integrated Accessibility Standards Policy Directive to inform planning requirements under the new Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation enacted in 2011 under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. This policy provides the overall strategic direction for Elections Ontario's commitment to providing accessibility supports to Ontarians with disabilities. As part of its commitment to accessibility, Elections Ontario has established the Elections Ontario Accessibility Advisory Committee. The Committee's mandate is to advise the chief electoral officer on initiatives to be undertaken by Elections Ontario for removing barriers in the electoral process and for increasing opportunities available to persons with disabilities.19
In a simple manner, we can think of best practices in supports to electors with disabilities taking place at three basic time periods: before voting, when voting itself occurs during the election campaign, and after the election is done. Before voting, progressive measures, as offered by Elections Canada, include a toll-free information line for those with a hearing impairment; documents written specifically for people with disabilities and/or low literacy; and a sign-language DVD with open- and closed-captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Elections Canada provides large-print lists of candidates and broadcast information via VoicePrint and the Magnetotèque during elections. In 2010 amendments to the Ontario Election Act, Elections Ontario must ensure that advance poll and election day voting locations are accessible to voters with disabilities. Six months before election day, the chief electoral officer is required to post the proposed voting locations on a website for public consultation (Elections Ontario 2011a).20
Reference can also be made to accessibility training for Elections Canada staff and updated signage regarding access. Moreover, for people with vision loss:
Web accessibility has also become a priority for Elections Canada, and it has been upgrading its online offerings based on accessible web design expertise provided by CNIB. The Elections Canada website is now compatible with technology that people with vision loss typically use to access a computer, such as screen reading or magnification software programs, or electronic Braille keyboards. Special hidden links have also been added to almost every page to allow for easy navigation with a screen reading program. These programs use a synthetic audio voice to "read" what appears or is typed on a screen for the computer user with vision loss (Canadian National Institute for the Blind 2011b).
When casting a ballot occurs during an election campaign, a number of progressive practices are targeted at specific electors with impairments. Recent initiatives by Elections Ontario in making voting more accessible for people with vision loss offer an illustration:
- developing a ballot template with candidates' surnames in large print, and providing sighted guiding assistance to and from the screen, which will allow many more people with vision loss to mark their ballots in private;
- broadcasting election information ads on VoicePrint – Canada's 24-hour audio broadcast service for print-restricted Canadians;
- providing election information materials in alternative formats. In the October 2011 Ontario election, Elections Ontario distributed a direct mail brochure to every household in the province. The information was made available in a large-print format and, through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, in audio and in Braille format, if available. It was also broadcast over VoicePrint;
- training staff at voting locations to be sensitive to the diverse needs of voters; and
- placing clear directional signage in all voting locations (Canadian National Institute for the Blind 2011b; Elections Ontario 2011a; see also Owen 2010).
There are also best practices in election administration after the completion of a general election, to do with monitoring, consultation and evaluation. Such post-inspection reviews of an election process are required in Australia, Canada and certain provinces. Other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand and some US states, have chosen to undertake post-election surveys of the general population and/or with a focus on voters with special needs. "This fosters," Karlawish and Bonnie (2007, 910) maintain, "accountability, problem identification, and problem solving." The Electoral Commission in New Zealand, for example, has consulted with disability groups and developed an action plan, called Access 2011, designed to improve the accessibility of elections and electoral services for electors with disabilities. Informed by feedback and complaints of recent elections, as well as consultations, this accessibility action plan fits within the context of the disability action plan developed by the New Zealand government's Office for Disability Issues.
Of particular relevance to voting by the elderly are requirements for a report summarizing the measures taken to provide access for disabled voters, as is the case in Ontario.21 For instance, Elections Canada offers a polling site accessibility feedback process, with a form that invites electors with disabilities to submit their comments and complaints about polling sites. In particular, electors are invited to offer feedback on their satisfaction (or not) with accessible parking, the external walkways and entrances to the polling site, interior routes and the voting area, and signage. Electors are also asked to offer comments on their ability to vote and other related personal experiences with the voting process. Comments are kept confidential and, if the elector requests, Elections Canada will respond to individual concerns about access and service.
18 The six desired outcomes of the Disability Access and Inclusion Plan are: First, people with disabilities have the same opportunities as other people to access our services and events. Second, people with disabilities have the same opportunities as other people to access our buildings and other facilities. Third, people with disabilities receive information from us in a format that will enable them to access the information as readily as other people are able to access it. Fourth, people with disabilities receive the same level and quality of service from our employees as other people. Fifth, people with disabilities have the same opportunities as other people to make complaints to us. And, the sixth desired outcome of the Plan is that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as other people to participate in any public consultation we may carry out (Western Australia Electoral Commission 2011).
19 According to the Elections Ontario website, the Accessibility Advisory Committee held its first meeting on January 26, 2011. All members of the Committee serve at the discretion of the chief electoral officer, to carry out their mandate as directed by the chief electoral officer. A maximum of 15 members can be appointed to the Committee. A majority of members of the Committee shall be persons with disabilities. Consideration is given to including Committee members from various geographical areas of the province and members who represent a cross section of the disability community. In terms of mandate, the Committee shall advise Elections Ontario on issues related but not limited to the development, implementation and effectiveness of Elections Ontario's Accessibility Program; insights into the requirements of people with disabilities with regard to the electoral process; emerging regulations made under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005 and possible implications of those regulations; options and advice on other accessibility-related issues within the organization; and future public consultation on accessibility, including recommendations on the structure and membership of the permanent Elections Ontario Accessibility Advisory Committee.
20 The Elections Ontario website received more than 3,000 hits on the proposed voting locations. More than 1,000 individuals or organizations downloaded the full report, including all the proposed voting locations, and almost 100 individuals gave feedback. Elections Ontario evaluated the feedback and responded directly to those members of the public who sent comments.
21 Karlawish and Bonnie (2007, 904) note: "A 2001 amendment to the Ontario Election Act requires elections officials to submit a report within three months of election day summarizing the measures taken to provide access for disabled voters."