I’ve been eligible to vote for 21 years now and have yet to vote independently or in secret!
Every single time I’ve invoked my democratic right to cast a vote in secret, at least one other person, if not more, have known who I voted for, what political party I feel represents me and from that, they’ve probably formed all sorts of other opinions about me as a result, it’s the North of Ireland after all!
Because I’m blind and the electoral system that we have still doesn’t award blind or partially sighted people the same standards of privacy and confidentiality as everyone else. It’s good old, plain and simple inequality right there. You’d be hard pushed to find a better example of inequality for people with a disability than when it comes to taking part in the democratic process.
Now I know there are those who will say, “But people are willing to help you cast your vote either on polling day or by postal or proxy?”
“The Returning Officer in a polling station can assist and is glad to do so.”
“Is it really such a big deal if your partner/parent/friend gives you a hand making your mark in the right box?”
I hear what you’re saying. In writing this piece I definitely do not want to insult or offend those who have helped me over the years to have my say in the political future of our people, but that isn’t my point here. Why can’t I and others who can’t see fully just vote by ourselves?
It isn’t a complicated thing! It’s only stating your preference from a list of options. We do that sort of thing in every day life in some form or another. It strikes me that if they offered the facility to vote online, then this overlooked, bear faced inequality, would be well on the way to being addressed. I’m no expert but even I know there’s all sorts of online software and systems that can do exactly what the electoral process would require. Yes, I know the main counter argument is one of data security and protecting against identity theft. But are we really supposed to accept that in today’s 2017 world, the systems, software or applications don’t exist that wouldn’t be more than adequate for the job? If my memory serves me correctly, weren’t we able to complete our 2011 census form online?
I mean, I can leave the house in the morning, make many purchases and information transactions along my way and return in the evening and carry no physical cash or paper work what’s so ever. We’ve got GPS to find ourselves, contactless payment and apps to keep us appy but the process of casting your democratic vote by anything other than pencil and paper and of course sight, elude us still to this day.
Ask anyone over the age of 18 or 20, what would be the most important civic duty we perform as a citizen and I’m fairly confident the answer would come back, voting for your future public representative to sort this mess out.
Now I should acknowledge that the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland do offer assistance. You can ask to be guided within a polling station, they will provide additional lighting in polling booths and they do offer a template selector device that has braille numbers that indicate each box on the paper. This is appreciated by many but it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the route problem of using the printed text on paper as the only method of communication.
Think about it, depending on the type of election, you might have to know your preferred candidate’s number out of a list of maybe 20. If you’re sighted, you can just glance down the list and then copy the number in to the box. I have to ask someone to read the list to me then futther with the braille template hoping that the paper is in the right way round and not back to front or upside down.
What about those times when the special assistance isn’t there for what ever reason – you get the picture.
I’ve had people say to me since writing this piece that I’ve got it wrong and the tactile selecter device makes voting equal? Whilst it does help but it doesn’t address all the actions involved in voting and we, the people with little or no sight, should keep repeating this to whoever will listen.
Does it matter?
Well it matters as much as anything else does. We’re told that we’re born in to a democratic society. Our vote is our voice and, if you don’t like something, then vote to change it. So then yeah, I reckon it matters quite a bit. I believe that just because somebody might say something like “But sure at least you can vote,” or “can you not just be happy at the fact that people are able to help you vote?”
I’ve got off my backside and went out to cast my vote at every single polling day since I was 18. I believe in the power of the people and that your vote is yours to do with as you see fit.
A thought does occur to me though; I’ve relied on other people to assist me in voting for years. I’m assuming they were honest with me and either gave me the right information or made the mark in the right box for me. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe I’ve been voting for a completely different MP or MLA all these years. Maybe I have been voting for something I absolutely disagree with! Maybe Brexit is my fault.
I’m pretty sure that is not the case but you get my point.
A sighted person walks in to their polling station, takes their ballot paper to the booth and makes their mark on the page before dropping the paper in to the ballot box. They then leave the polling station confident in the knowledge that they went in there to vote for a particular candidate and that’s what they did.
We can’t. And I really don’t see where the political will or wind of change is going to come from, any time soon?