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

1. Introduction

People with disabilities represent a growing social group in Canada as well as in other countries, and their participation could notably affect overall turnout levels (McColl 2006; Schur 1998). "Moreover, demographic changes mean that we will see a growth in the number of disabled children coming of voting age and an increase in older voters with age-acquired impairments" (Scope 2010a, 6). Electoral participation is a basic democratic right, long recognized as a fundamental component of citizenship and human rights a recognition given recent affirmation in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The absence of the actual exercise of that right has policy and social consequences: "When a discrete group of citizens is disenfranchised, its consequent lack of political power may be reflected in a systematic neglect of the issues of greatest import to its members or that group" (Karlawish et al. 2008, 66).

As the Canadian population continues to age, examining the interplay of disability and voter turnout will grow in importance for understanding the dynamics of electoral involvement and civic engagement. Studying electoral participation by persons with disabilities may offer lessons that apply more generally to the broad decline in voter turnout over the last few decades in many democracies. Promising practices in electoral outreach and in the administration of election systems, identified in one jurisdiction or more, can inform other jurisdictions. Ultimately, the topic touches directly on core public ideas of representation and inclusion, and on governance processes of political participation and policy making (Beckett 2006; Milner 2002; Pilon 2007) for this diverse group of electors a group that we still know relatively little about when it comes to their voting habits and experiences (Schur et al. 2002, 172; United Response 2010). What barriers do citizens with disabilities face when accessing a voting process in Canada? What methods and techniques may best reach this group of electors? What might Canadian electoral management bodies learn from practices internationally in other liberal democracies? To begin to answer these fundamental questions, this report provides a concise synthesis of the existing literature that identifies both successes and challenges faced by voters with disabilities.

1.1  Purposes and Scope of the Analysis

Research has demonstrated that some groups tend to vote less than the mainstream Canadian population, including electors with disabilities. Elections Canada is committed to ensuring accessibility to the electoral process for this group. To do so, it is important that we examine and better understand the barriers that electors with disabilities face, and assess the methods and vehicles that may best reach this group of electors. The study has five main objectives:

  • to better understand the barriers that electors with disabilities face and how to ensure this group has access to the voting process;
  • to conduct a literature review on the electoral participation of electors with disabilities, including voter turnout and attitudes toward the electoral process;
  • to review voting methods deployed by electoral management bodies in Canada and in selected jurisdictions abroad that might be useful to electors with disabilities (e.g. mail ballot, Internet voting), as well as methods specifically designed to assist electors with disabilities in voting (electronic voting device, templates, ballot in Braille, and so on);
  • to make recommendations on "best practices" to reduce barriers that electors with disabilities face and how to communicate with and reach this group of electors; and
  • to identify gaps in the literature on electoral participation of electors with disabilities where new research is required and areas for further study.

This research will inform and contribute to a knowledge base on this group of electors.

With respect to civic inclusion and democratic citizenship, 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 for elected office. The criteria for selecting the sample of countries for this study were to include Canada (federal as well as provincial/territorial), plus a small group of other countries that exhibit unique or innovative policy reforms and best practices in electoral administration and outreach for electors with disabilities ideally with published evidence available on both. The time period covered spans approximately 2000 to 2011.

In light of these criteria, and informed by a review of the published comparative literature (e.g. Cameron and Valentine 2001), the group of jurisdictions reviewed in this report include Canada, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Each of these countries is a well-established liberal democracy; other than the US, they are all Westminster parliamentary systems; three are federal systems (Australia, Canada and the US); and all have active disability communities and various forms of disability rights legislation. Each of these jurisdictions has information readily available and has one or more policy features that addresses, in an innovative way, one or more of the challenges of electoral participation by electors with physical disablements and/or mental impairments.

1.2  Outline of the Report

Following this introductory section, Section 2 describes the conceptual and analytical framework for the report, identifies the data sources, presents the central concepts and outlines the research methods employed.

Section 3 offers the results of the literature review. These results are discussed in relation to evidence on the voter turnout by persons with disabilities as compared with the general population, attitudes toward the electoral process, the barriers faced by electors with disabilities, and other selected issues on electoral participation.

Section 4 examines voting methods in Canada and in the four other case study countries, with respect to both general methods for all electors and specific methods for voters with special needs. Section 5 provides an overview of progressive reforms or best practices in electoral administration and outreach services across Canadian jurisdictions and in the other countries.

Following this analysis, Section 6 then offers conclusions summarizing the key findings, offering recommendations, and identifying knowledge gaps and research needs deserving further inquiry. Section 7 contains an extensive bibliography.