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

4. Voting Methods

Voting methods, and their relationship to persons with disabilities, can be discussed in terms of general methods made available by electoral management bodies for all electors and then specific methods for electors with disabilities and other so-called special needs.

The classic, paradigmatic form of voting is of registered electors going to polling stations in available buildings on election day to observe the voting instructions, and to cast a paper-based standardized ballot, read and marked by hand as a personal act, done in secret.

For all its democratic virtues, this model of voting participation and electoral administration ignores the diversity of abilities and disabilities among citizens, as well as lacks adequate recognition and accommodation of embodied differences and material inequalities in the life circumstances of people. Indeed, contained in this traditional democratic paradigm of voting is the image of the normal voter, the self-reliant elector and able-bodied citizen; an image that implicitly and unintentionallyFootnote 14 has been unduly restrictive for a substantial number of citizens (American Foundation for the Blind 2011; Australian Electoral Commission 2011b; Capability Scotland 2010; East 2011; Meekosha and Dowse 1997; Weaver 2001).

4.1 International Developments

Over the years, therefore, in response to claims by groups for political citizenship and equal treatment, additional methods have been introduced and available to all eligible voters, most commonly the methods of advance voting and absentee voting, the latter also called special ballots (vote by mail) in Canada and postal voting in some other jurisdictions. In the UK, absent or postal voting was introduced in the late 1940s to meet the needs of people with a physical incapacity, but then extended, in 2001, to all voters, regardless of the kind of impairments or even if the elector did not have a disability. This legislative change resulted in an increased take-up of the postal ballot among the UK electorate in elections in 2005, although access problems with postal voting apparently persist. It is important to note, for the purposes of this report, that in the UK, postal voting remains the only real alternative to traditional voting available to electors with disabilities (Scope 2010a, 1819, and 3234).

In the UK, disabled voters are offered, at least from a Canadian perspective, a relatively modest array of options for voting. Disabled electors are entitled to request assistance to mark their ballot paper by an immediate family member, a qualified elector or by a presiding officer. To prevent electoral fraud, "the name and electoral register number of the disabled person and the companion are entered onto a list" by presiding officers at the polling station (Scope 2010a, 15). Following changes to the Representation of the People Act 2000, regulations specify that tactile voting devices are to be available in elections to assist visually impaired voters or those with limited dexterity to mark their ballot in secret without the help of another person (BBC News 2001; 2011). Moreover, large-print poster versions of the ballot paper are to be posted at polling stations as a reference for voters when they mark the regular-sized ballot. Where polling stations are inaccessible which remains a significant issue in British elections (Scope (2010a) the presiding officer may take the ballot to the elector or the elector may request a postal vote (Electoral Commission 2008).

In addition, recent UK legislationFootnote 15 allows for the phased introduction of individual electoral registration, in place of the traditional method of the head of household registering the occupants of their private home. Disability groups applaud the move but also express a caution:

Individual registration is a welcome step in improving access to elections for disabled people, helping to prevent deliberate non-registration or vote stealing by those responsible for registering them. However, it is essential that the new system of registration in the UK is designed from the outset with the access needs of disabled people in mind, including the ability to use different identifiers where required, and to receive registration information in the alternative format of their choice (Scope 2010a, 10).

In their comparative study of electoral systems, Karlawish and Bonnie (2007, 895) found, with respect to Australia, that:

The Australian system has been reluctant to adopt balloting technologies different from its long-standing use of the pencil and paper ballot, such as ballots in Braille or computer-assisted voting. In mobile polling, this reliance on the paper and pencil ballot requires frequent one-on-one assistance for the elderly voter. The result is that elderly Australians have access to the ballot but limits upon their ability to vote privately.

Information from the Australian Electoral Commission (2010a, b) indicates that for the 2010 federal election, electors who are blind or have low vision had the option to cast a secret vote by telephone to a special and secure call centre.Footnote 16 Other alternative voting options available for electors with disabilities in Australian federal elections include an "assisted vote," early (advance) voting, voting by post (mail) and voting at a mobile polling station, which may visit such locations as hospitals and nursing homes. In the state of Western Australia, the electoral commission there has been introducing a range of services for voters with disabilities since the mid-1990s, following the enactment of disability rights legislation. In addition to mobile polls and general polling place access, the Western Australia Electoral Commission (2011) has established drive-through polling places, redesigned desktop voting screens, TTY (telephone typewriter service), hard-of-hearing counter cards, video magnifiers and CCTV (closed circuit TV) screens, among other devices. Other devices include magnifying sheets at polling places, triangular pencils and the right to obtain assistance from any person a disabled elector chooses. Following the 2005 election, the Western Australia Electoral Commission conducted a survey to assess people's level of satisfaction with the electoral services offered by the Commission.

In New Zealand, all electors can nominate other persons to assist them to read and mark their voting paper; vote in advance of election day and/or in a place other than the voting booth; and also nominate another person to register for them and vote on their behalf if they do not have the capacity to understand the nature of the decision to register as an elector (New Zealand, Office for Disability Issues 2011).

In the US, it seems that a moderate range of alternative voting methods are available across all 50 states, whether for state-wide or national elections. A survey conducted by the US General Accounting Office following the 2000 elections found that just one or two alternative voting methods or accommodations for disabled voters were provided in all states, in particular for people with disabilities whose assigned polling places were inaccessible. All states allow for absentee voting without requiring a notary or medical certification. It is worth noting that some, but not all, states provide in law or policy for the reassignment to a polling place that is accessible. And, some, but not all, states provide curb-side voting, early voting or absentee voting by mail, and allow ballots to be taken to a voter's residence (US General Accounting Office 2001, 67). Inside voting booths and polling places, other accommodations for electors with disabilities include voter assistance, magnifying devices, voting instructions or sample ballots in large print, and Braille ballots. At the time of this survey, however, the majority of states had no statutory or regulatory provisions for these accommodations at polling stations (US General Accounting Office 2001, 16).

New electronic technologies for voters with physical and visual impairments were introduced in several US states, starting with the 2000 election year. In addition to optical scanning machines and Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting machines, newer methods include eSlate, a laptop computer device; speech synthesizers; and a touch-screen voting machine in which computer screens are responsive to touch. Other special voting methods or aids include a human reader, audio readouts, "sip and puff" systems, and a partial Braille ballot in some American jurisdictions and elections (Howell 2011; O'Sullivan 2001; Sabatino and Spurgeon 2007).

Across the four other nations surveyed, electronic and Internet voting are still not widespread methods in electoral systems, perhaps explained by the inertia of traditional practices, and also by caution about privacy issues and the overall security and thus integrity of the electoral rolls (Karlawish and Bonnie 2007, 899; Sabatino and Spurgeon 2007; Schur et al. 2002). Australia has done a trial of electronic voting in a federal election (Australian Electoral Commission 2010a). In the UK, electronic voting or e-voting "methods of casting a ballot which use an information technology format to allow voters to record their votes digitally" were piloted in local and national elections between 2002 and 2007, to assess, among other issues, their accessibility to disabled voters. The major e-voting methods piloted were e-voting at kiosks, Internet voting, telephone voting, text messaging and digital TV voting systems. The Electoral Commission in Britain expressed concerns over the accessibility of the methods and security risks to the integrity of the election process (Scope 2010a, 1922). All the countries studied for this report provide a range of formats on information on voting for the blind, deaf-blind and vision-impaired communities (see, for example, Scope 2010a, 1415).

4.2 Canadian Developments

With respect to the Canadian electoral system, Karlawish and Bonnie (2007, 905) observe that:

Canada's initiatives over the past two decades appear to have substantially enhanced access to the polls for elderly voters with disabilities. These features include mobile polling, and substantial innovation in ballot design and formatting to maximize a voter's opportunity to vote without the assistance of someone else.

Canada's system has several features that reduce the risk of fraud. Mobile polling run by election officials limits the chance that nursing home staff will co-opt or otherwise manipulate residents' ballots. Limiting a non-family member to assisting only one disabled voter and requiring an oath to document this also reduces the likelihood that a person aiming to affect the outcome of an election will be able to influence the votes of a large number of residents.

These remarks on the Canadian electoral system draw attention to mobile polling stations, which involves taking the polls to a voter's place of residence, usually an institutional residence such as a long-term care facility, hospital, nursing home or home for the aged. Mobile polls are also used for proving voting access to electors living in remote and isolated communities in Australia, Canada and the US. Proxy voting delegating one's voting right to another specific person is another method in use in a few countries, which may be of assistance to some electors with disabilities as well as other voters. Still another method used, in the Canadian context at least, is the transfer certificate, which allows a person who is a wheelchair user to vote at a polling station with level access, if his or her own polling station is inaccessible (e.g. due to narrow doorways and corridors, steep stairwells, no elevators).

In addition to ordinary polls on election day, other general methods made available by federal/provincial/territorial electoral management bodies for electors include advance polls, mail-in or special ballots, voting at home, voting at the office of a returning officer, mobile polls (i.e. travelling polling stations), transfer certificate and, in the case of Nunavut and Yukon, proxy voting (Elections Canada 2010a, 47; 2011c).

To be sure, there has been "substantial innovation in ballot design and formatting" aimed at enhancing access and voting turnout by electors with physical and mental impairments. These innovations include audio tactile devices, audio cassettes as well as Braille to enable people who are blind or visually impaired to vote; different languages in addition to English and French; DVD and CD diskettes; large-print format; and voting templates for electors with a visual impairment. Previously, many people with vision loss had to vote with the help of a sighted assistant. In 2006, with the help of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and other groups, Elections Canada produced a new plastic template that will allow people with vision loss to vote in private. The tool includes raised numbers, Braille and a large-print list of candidates' names (Canadian National Institute for the Blind 2011a; 2011b).

In addition, there are developments in recent years in the provision of assistive voting services and technologies both human supports and technical supports to electors with disabilities. Human support services include the option of personal assistance, provided by a family member or even a non-family member or by an elections official at the polling station, with registration and marking the ballot. Another human support service is the availability of language or sign language interpreter services on request. In a similar way, in a recent Quebec by-election, the province's electoral management body, the Directeur général des élections du Québec, piloted a ballot paper with a photograph of the candidates, a practice that will be extended to general provincial elections. In the Northwest Territories, providing the photograph of candidates on a ballot is also one of the forms of assistance provided to electors.

Assistive voting technologies that use equipment recently tried in some provincial elections in Canada include the sip and puff technology that enables a person with a spinal cord injury or other mobility impairment that denies them the use of their hands to vote (Adam 2011). At the federal level, Elections Canada, having obtained parliamentary approval, tested an assistive voting device (an automated talking machine) during the federal by-election in Winnipeg North in November 2010. The device's purpose is to assist electors with a visual impairment and those with low literacy skills (Owen 2010). Electors who required assistance and whose election day polling station did not offer an assistive voting device could apply for a transfer certificate to permit them to vote at a polling site that did have a device. According to Elections Canada, "The agency has concluded that it will not proceed further with this device, but will continue to study additional methods that could facilitate voting for electors with disabilities. In the meantime, Elections Canada will continue to offer those electors a wide range of services" (see Elections Canada 2011d for details).

Table 2 provides information on legislative and administrative initiatives for electors with disabilities in place federally and in thirteen Canadian jurisdictions.Footnote 17

Table 2 Legislative and Administrative Initiatives for Electors with Disabilities in Canada, Provinces and Territories (as of February 22, 2012)
Powers of the chief electoral officer
• To carry out studies on alternative voting methods
• Test alternative voting methods
• Public education and information program
• Employee training program regarding issues of sensitivity for disabled electors
Obligation to report on:
• Level of accessibility of polling sites
• Type of accessibility equipment used
• Type of alternative voting technologies
Voting methods
• Absentee, write-in and mail-in ballot
• Voting at home
• Mobile poll
• Transfer certificate
• Proxy voting
Level access
• Advance polls ✔*1 ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔*
• Polling day ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔*
• Returning office ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔* ✔*
• Language 2
• Sign language
Assistance to the elector
• Template (for visually impaired electors)
• By the deputy returning officer
• By another individual
• Transportation of material to elector (confined to a bed)
• Transportation of elector to polling site

1. The * indicates that the legislation states that the polling place must be convenient for electors. This could entail level access, physical location and settings as well as other relevant factors.

2 An individual is permitted to receive assistance from a translator; however, the obligation to provide a translator rests with the individual.

Targeted communication and outreach
• Electronic bulletins to groups, including electors with disabilities
• Consultation with groups, including electors with disabilities
• Dedicated web page for electors with disabilities
• Increase font size
• Change font
• Change colour
• Tactile
• Availability of reports in accessible format
Services offered
• TTY Information line
• Audio householders
Material offered
• Braille
• Large print
• Magnifiers
• Plain language
• Closed caption advertising
Authorized piece of identification to vote 3
• CNIB card N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
• Letter or statement issued by elder's home or long-term care facility N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Assistive voting tools
• Audio headphones
• Tactile buttons
• Large keypads marked with Braille
• Paddles
• Sip and puff device
• Accessibility feedback form
Pilot projects
• Assistive voting device
• Picture of candidate on a ballot                  

3 Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Yukon and Nunavut do not have a legal requirement for electors to prove their identity and/or residence in order to vote. In Alberta, an elector who is not on the register of electors but would like to vote must provide a proof of identity and residence. Only authorized pieces of identification that are intended to assist electors with disabilities are listed in this chart. These pieces of identification can be used as an authorized proof of identification only if it is accompanied by a second piece of identification to validate identity and/or residence.

N/A = not available

Source: Based on information publicly available on electoral management bodies' websites and in other documents.

As Table 2 reveals, electoral management bodies in the national, provincial and territorial jurisdictions currently offer 22 kinds of legislative-based services for electors with disabilities. No single jurisdiction provides all of these initiatives, although Elections Ontario (19 of 22) and Elections Canada (17 of 22) offer relatively comprehensive assortments of these services. At a minimum, all 14 electoral management bodies in Canada have at least six legislative initiatives directed at electors with disabilities (even if not always the same six measures). This appears to be a higher foundation of services than the basis available in the US for disabled voters in national and state elections (US General Accounting Office 2001).

In Canada, the most widely available legislative-based activities for electors with disabilities are absentee/mail-in ballot (13 of 14 jurisdictions); level access to polls on election day (13 of 14) and at advance polls (12 of 14); and mobile polls (12 of 14 jurisdictions). These correspond to mainstream voting methods with a focus on polling stations, perhaps the essence of inclusive electoral participation. Other common legislative initiatives deal with language interpretation and assistance to the elector by a deputy returning officer or by another individual (all available in various combinations in 11 jurisdictions). By contrast, the least available legislative-based measures by Canadian electoral management bodies for electors with disabilities are election employee training on disability issues (1); reporting on accessibility (2); and transportation services for electors with disabilities to polling stations (2).

In this age of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and disability activism, two gaps in the legislative measures offered across the country stand out as probably unexpected. One is that sign language is guaranteed by law in the electoral systems of only five jurisdictions. No such right exists in any of the provinces in Atlantic Canada or Western Canada. The second feature is that a template for visually impaired electors is available in eight jurisdictions but not in three provinces or in the three territories. Both of these gaps relate to long-standing and well-known physical impairments in Canadian society.

Regarding powers to innovate on electoral participation, comparatively few chief electoral officers have explicit statutory authority to carry out studies on alternative voting methods (4 jurisdictions) and/or to test alternative voting methods in by-elections or general elections prior to the approval of parliamentary committees (5 jurisdictions). Of these, only two Canada and Ontario have powers to both study and to test alternative voting methods for electors with disabilities and for other disadvantaged groups. Moreover, with respect to administrative-based innovations, such as pilot projects on assistive voting devices, just three jurisdictions have undertaken these.

In addition to these legislative measures, Table 2 shows that there are 25 different kinds of administrative-based services for electors with disabilities provided by one or more electoral management bodies in Canada. The most commonly available administrative-based initiatives are to offer a dedicated web page for electors with disabilities (8 jurisdictions); material in Braille (8); a TTY information line (6); and large-print material (6). In fact, most provincial and territorial electoral management bodies have a repertoire of five or fewer administrative measures for electors with disabilities. As well, four jurisdictions, which include smaller populated territories and provinces, offer almost none of these 25 administrative measures.

Beyond Elections Canada, relatively few electoral management bodies in the country offer targeted communications to electors with disabilities, engage in specific consultations with representative disability groups or provide accessibility feedback forms and procedures. Each of these seems to be an important element in a forward-looking program of outreach to enhance the responsiveness of electoral administration and to improve the accessibility of the electoral process for these electors. In addition, assistive voting devices are offered through administrative means in only a few jurisdictions, almost exclusively New Brunswick and Ontario.

By jurisdiction, the most extensive grouping of these administrative measures is in Ontario (23) followed by Canada (15) and New Brunswick (12). These are the same jurisdictions with the most extensive legislative initiatives for voters with disabilities. This indicates that administrative measures are a complement to, rather than a substitute for, legislative measures. In other words, both legislative commitments and administrative services are required for an energetic set of supports for electors with disabilities.

Overall, then, electoral management bodies in Canada can be described and compared according to the magnitude of their services and supports to electors with disabilities. By this basic measure, the 14 bodies may be grouped into three clusters. The first cluster includes Canada, New Brunswick and Ontario. The bodies in these jurisdictions, as already noted, are the most active in the country both in legislative and administrative measures for electors with disabilities. All three bodies undertake at least half or considerably more of the universe of governmental initiatives surveyed across the country. The second cluster includes the electoral management bodies in five provinces (NS, QC, MB, AB and BC), each of which offers about one-third of the legislative and administrative measures that were listed for disabled voters. The third cluster comprises the electoral management bodies in the six other jurisdictions, including all the territories (NL, PE, SK, YK, NT and NU). These bodies offer a more modest selection of legislative initiatives and few if any administrative measures for electors with disabilities.

These patterns of activities suggest that considerable scope exists across the country for sharing experiences among electoral management bodies as well as among parliamentarians, disability groups and other stakeholders; and that opportunities exist for drawing lessons and identifying positive practices that may be applicable for a given jurisdiction. The information in Table 2 also suggests that some reforms do imply legislation yet, at the same time, a number of significant changes may not require amendments to election acts but can be achieved through administrative actions by electoral officials.

Innovations in the use of Internet voting machines have also been piloted by a handful of municipalities in some provinces. Such online voting has been tried in local elections in Halifax, Peterborough and Markham (Matas 2011). In Markham, Ontario, Internet voting machines were used in advance voting only, at a cost of about $25,000, while on election day the city used optical scan vote tabulators (Ferenc 2003; Kapica 2009). In 2010 city elections in Winnipeg, new voting machines were purchased to assist people with disabilities, and other groups, to vote at both advance polls and election day. The city also offered for disabled electors the options of voting with a keypad and a ballot printer, a Braille template, moving paddles, and personal assistance if requested (Rollason 2010). Other cities have also introduced one or another of these voting methods for electors with disabilities; for example, Braille ballots in Saskatoon's municipal elections (Boklaschuk 2003) and accessible voting machines for blind electors in the 2010 Toronto municipal elections (Rae 2010).

Footnote 14 For people with mental health conditions and intellectual or cognitive impairments – people historically labelled as mad, insane or feeble minded – there were, in many jurisdictions, intentional restrictions in law and practice on the right to vote.

Footnote 15 The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, United Kingdom Parliament.

Footnote 16 At the 2010 federal elections, telephone voting was available in 125 locations across Australia to allow voters who are blind or have low vision to cast a secret vote. This service was available before and on election day in all Australia Electoral Commission divisional offices and other selected locations. Voters using this service had their name marked off the electoral roll and then cast their vote in private over the phone (People with Disability 2011).

Footnote 17 Note that this survey of Canadian practices is based on information publicly available. It is therefore possible that something has been omitted. Tthese data, therefore, must be used with some caution.