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

6. Conclusion

This report has been an inquiry into the interaction between personal disablement and public engagement; between functional limitations and political possibilities in short, a case study of the relationship between disability and democracy.

The report's empirical contribution is as an up-to-date comparative survey of Canada's electoral regimes as they are addressing the democratic rights of a social group disadvantaged because of mental or physical disability. A core belief held by many disability groups, electoral management bodies and political scientists is that with the development and introduction of new voting methods, along with more accessible information and polling stations, there will be, so the claim and hope goes, a notable increase in voter turnout by electors with cognitive, mental and physical disabilities. In other words, through certain progressive practices of outreach, the trend of continual declining voter turnout generally observed across democracies could be reversed, at least in the case of a marginal group such as people with disabilities.

The report's conceptual contribution is by providing a set of terms and ideas with which to think and talk about electoral administration and voter participation.

6.1 Summary of Key Findings

Electoral regimes contribute to shaping the nature of democracy and to disability politics that is, the goals, strategies and actions of organizations representing people with various impairments in Canada and in other countries. In turn, through their participation, citizens with disabilities can influence the character of electoral politics in democratic nations.

A cherished political ideal and fundamental constitutional right, electoral participation is also a contested state of affairs and changing set of practices. The picture of electoral systems that emerges from this analysis is of elaborate and important public institutions, responding to various expectations of electors and efforts by the disabled voting movement, and adopting new measures in varying ways and degrees across jurisdictions to actively facilitate the participation of people with cognitive, mental and physical impairments.

As an institution for the exercise of democratic citizenship, electoral systems have a particular significance to disability groups in terms of a history of past exclusions and in the form of present aspirations and collective mobilization for equality rights and full participation in political communities. It is clearly the case that participating in general elections has a positive effect on self-perceptions and social identities of people with disabilities, as it does with electors without disabilities (Prince 2009; Schur 1998).

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 such as for public perceptions and attitudes toward people with disabilities; the combination of targeted and/or mainstream services provided; and the relative emphasis on personal responsibility rather than societal accountability for addressing barriers and making access and inclusion real for voters with disabilities. Therefore, reforms to electoral administration or communication and outreach, designed to enhance voter participation, occur within a context of these models of disability.

If, for example, voting methods require or expect disabled electors to depend upon the aid of family or friend to cast their ballot, while offering little if any other options and accommodations that approximate the democratic paradigm of voting, then the disability status of that elector is likely to be personally experienced and publicly presented as an individual misfortune and problem of caregiving a private responsibility, in large part rather than be viewed as a social issue and problem of citizenship, a matter of human rights and public policy.22 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. The shift is gradually away from individual and medical conceptions, toward the functional and social concepts, with greater attention to interactions between electors and technologies and to the role of public policies, activism and societal institutions in fostering a sense of opportunity, participation and belonging.

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 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 has been legislative reform in the UK to protect the rights of people deemed to have a learning or intellectual disability, exclusions still take place (Karlawish and Bonnie 2007; Redley, Hughes and Holland 2010). Canada is one of just a few countries worldwide with no statutory exclusion based on mental incapacity (Karlawish and Bonnie 2007).

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 (Harrington 1999; Jaeger 2004; People with Disability 2011; Seelye 2001). In this regard, some scholars observe of the American experience: "Federal interest in the mitigation of barriers to voting by people with disabilities arose not by happenstance ... but rather as the product of increased political activism by people with disabilities that coincided with a broader civil rights movement" (Ward, Baker and Moon 2009, 81). In Canada, the "federal electoral process has become progressively more accessible, in large measure because of advocacy by or on behalf of persons with disabilities," observe Karlawish and Bonnie (2007, 903; see also Davidson and Lapp 2004). On litigation and equality rights claims, a law professor concludes that "decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada in the last two decades have involved significant advances for persons with disabilities"; however, "there is much to be done to achieve substantive equality" (Pothier 2006, 316). 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.

In this study, electoral participation has been conceptualized in three dimensions. First, the environment of policy, court decisions, legislation and disability group actions that comprise 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. From this perspective, electoral participation is a dynamic interplay among factors within and across these three dimensions. The efforts of many electoral management bodies in recent years have tended to focus on the middle dimension of this framework; in other words, the services and technologies for the casting of ballots, along with the rules governing aspects of registering to vote and the conduct of elections (Scope 2010a).

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.

Overall, electoral reforms have addressed several broad categories of impairments:

Nonetheless, barriers to voting by electors with disabilities continue to exist in all the countries or jurisdictions surveyed for this report (Polls Apart 2010; World Health Organization 2011). This is evident by the several studies noted in this 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. Furthermore, 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 depend on a number of policy, environmental and social factors.

6.2 Recommendations

We turn now to offering some proposals or suggestions on best practices designed to reduce barriers that electors with disabilities face, and how to communicate and more effectively reach this group of electors. Any and all 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.

Electoral participation of disabled electors can be advanced by paying attention to the diversity in Canadian society of physical and mental abilities among citizens and by offering an array of sources of information on elections and options for voting methods. Election staff and workers, while highly dedicated and competent, may not possess the necessary knowledge and skills to provide appropriate services whatever the elector's impairments. Disability rights associations and impairment-specific groups are an important part of the electoral system, providing services, supports and information.

Communication and outreach activities should address both personal and social attitudes toward the electoral process in a multifaceted and targeted strategy. Measures need to focus on the attitudes of several groups of actors and relationships: election workers toward electors with disabilities and any individual who accompanies them (e.g. personal assistant, interpreter or peer support); health care administrators and staff toward residents with disabilities; family members of people with disabilities; and the attitudes of individuals with disabilities concerning politics, democracy and voting.

Earlier, we presented information on legislative and administrative initiatives for electors with disabilities in place federally and in the 10 provincial and three territorial Canadian jurisdictions. That survey (see Table 2) indicates a number of voting options and services deployed by electoral management bodies for disabled electors which are not currently in place at the federal level. Accordingly, the following recommendations are offered for consideration:

  1. 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 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  2. That Elections Canada introduce an employee training program, similar to initiatives in Ontario and elsewhere, for election workers regarding raising awareness about 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. This means training that recognizes that disability is a diverse and evolving phenomenon, and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers. Training modules could be developed that reflect the roles and responsibilities of the array of election officers: returning officers and deputy returning officers, registration officers, poll supervisors and poll clerks, special ballot coordinator (hospitals), training officers and information officers.
  3. That Elections Canada seek statutory responsibility under the Canada Elections Act 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.
  4. That, in connection with the Hughes decision, Elections Canada review and, where needed, revise website practices, including variable font sizes and colours, to ensure the highest level of accessibility to all citizens, whatever their impairment or need.
  5. That Elections Canada 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.
  6. That Elections Canada review the range of assistive voting tools being offered in certain provincial jurisdictions tools that include audio headphones, tactile buttons, large keyboards marked with Braille, paddles, and sip and puff devices.
  7. That Elections Canada test Internet or e-voting in a federal by-election to determine the accessibility and feasibility of such methods for all electors, with a special view as to how it may address barriers disabled electors' experience.
  8. That Elections Canada strengthen 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 committee to Elections Canada.23
  9. That Elections Canada better inform administrators of health care and residential facilities of their role in supporting the rights of electors with disabilities in their care. As part of this initiative, staff in long-term care settings, including activity and recreation therapists, nurses and social workers, must be involved in such informational and support initiatives. So, too, these initiatives must be directed at family members and significant others in the lives of residents in nursing homes and similar care facilities.
  10. That Elections Canada conduct voter education and information programs, for youth with disabilities among other possible groups of electors with disabilities who face challenges and barriers in participating in electoral processes. Such programs, effectively targeted, have the potential of raising awareness, building knowledge and generating interest in Canadian democracy, politics and voting.

6.3 Knowledge Gaps and Research Needs

Despite disability activism, as well as legislative and related policy reforms aimed at people with disabilities in numerous democratic societies (New Zealand, Office for Disability Issues 2011; Prince 2010; Ward, Baker and Moon 2009), most jurisdictions fail in evaluating their administrative initiatives targeted to electors with disabilities. There is merit in doing such evaluations if barriers are to be systematically removed and participation broadly enabled.

The literature reviewed indicates both the range and the combination of research methods that can be used to study electoral management and voter participation. The literature also reveals certain strengths as well as gaps in our existing knowledge of disabled electors. For example, studies built on quantitative methods, usually a survey design, provide numeric descriptions of the characteristics of a specific or broad-spectrum population of persons with disabilities, and at times, compare that group with the general population of voters in a jurisdiction. Overall, there are not many such studies in this field, and most have been done in the US. Some quantitative studies, as explanatory research, also seek to test hypotheses or theories about voting behaviour found in political science and electoral studies. These survey studies are almost all cross-sectional in nature; that is, like a snapshot, they observe a collection of people at only one point in time, typically following a recent election.24 Another kind of quantitative method, or purpose for statistical analysis, is the body of studies that measure the accessibility of and barriers to polling stations and related election procedures for a specific general election. These studies, which are basically descriptive research, frequently are sponsored and conducted by disability organizations, notably in the UK over the past few decades. The knowledge produced here is instrumental: gathering information to verify whether access to electoral systems is getting better, or not, for disabled electors.

A few studies on this topic combine a mixed-methodology approach to their research. Schur (1998) is a notable example, combining the use of a written questionnaire with standard psychological measures of perceived efficacy and control, among other measures, along with in-depth interviews of 64 people with spinal cord injury, and, for her data analysis, drawing on the theoretical literature on disability and such concepts as stigma, discrimination and politicization.

Qualitative research features prominently in this literature. One form of qualitative research is legal analysis of court decisions, legislation and regulations pertaining to voting and people with disabilities. Most of this literature is of the American experience over the last three decades. A second form is philosophical or reflexive analysis, which examines the value assumptions and moral commitments with respect to notions of competence and personhood. In this case, these notions are appraised in relation to persons with real or perceived cognitive impairments and mental health conditions. This reflexive analysis has a practical implication, as some studies showed, regarding how the attitudes of election workers and/or staff in long-term care facilities can and do influence opportunities of certain people to be registered to vote and to actually cast a ballot in an election.

Taken as a whole, the literature indicates a need for conducting both quantitative and qualitative research to address the issues of voter participation, electoral outreach activities and communication services. On the quantitative research side, there is no current statistical analysis of disabled electors in Canada: their characteristics; the predictors of their participation or non-participation; and how they compare with electors without disabilities. Research designs of the more sophisticated quantitative studies in the literature on disability and elections could serve as guides, if not templates, to conduct similar research in the Canadian context.

On the qualitative research side, such analysis can get at the specific contexts of electors with divergent kinds of impairments and the concrete particularities of life circumstances by age, gender, ethnicity and place. Qualitative types of data collection (e.g. individual interviews, focus groups, fieldwork and participant observations, public and personal documents, and audiovisual materials) can help describe how people understand democracy, citizenship, politics, elections and voting the meaning these ideas have for individuals to describe social interactions and to explore processes of deciding to vote and acting on that intention; to discover how people interpret their experience of voting, including, for instance, alternative methods and new technologies for voting; and to describe and seek to understand their interactions with election officials, staff in nursing homes and political party workers.

Thus, while the literature on the electoral participation of electors with disabilities gradually grows, the overall discussion and findings presented in this report suggest that research is essential in the following areas:

In summary, across liberal democratic nations significant efforts are being made to expand accessibility and outreach measures directed at electors with disabilities. These positive changes are the result of deliberate policy changes by parliaments and electoral management bodies within a political and social environment of disability activism and democratic values of equality rights and full citizenship. The repertoire of voting pathways has increased and deepened for this historically marginalized group of citizens. Adults with disabilities have more pathways to engage with electoral processes and to cast votes today than even just a decade ago, although barriers continue and much remains to be done to advance electoral participation for all persons with disabilities.


22 See remarks by organizations representing the blind, deaf/blind or partially sighted in Canada or the US (Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians 2011; American Foundation for the Blind 2011; East 2011). The clear desire is to be able to vote independently and privately, without the assistance of another person, and to be able to verify the accuracy of their vote.

23 As one possible model, this advisory committee could have the following features: membership including the chief electoral officer (CEO) and up to six representatives of national disability-related groups; a mandate to advise the CEO on election process and administration of the relevant legislation, to share information and obtain input, and to advise on the conduct of studies of voting by persons with disabilities. The advisory committee could meet at least twice a year and, as part of the CEO's overall communication and outreach strategy, the results of the committee's work could be made public in a number of accessible formats.

24 Other approaches to social research that could be applied to elections and electoral participation are longitudinal in their focus on time periods. Either retrospective or prospective in outlook, longitudinal research involves taking repeated observations of people through time. These approaches include time-series research, which observes different people in each of multiple time periods; case study research, observing a small set of people intensely across time; a cohort study, observing a category of people who share an experience at two or more times; and a panel study, which involves observing the exact same people at two or more time periods.