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Accessibility to elections: A global overview

India is far from being the only country where just getting to a polling station in order to cast a vote can be an impossible feat. Elections throughout the world are a challenge for people with disabilities.

Picture of a wheelchair user unable to reach the polling booth because of stairs.

In order to increase the democratic rights of people with disabilities there are several organisations, in both the developing and so-called developed nations, working to lay down guidelines that will ensure everybody who chooses to do so can register their vote.

An organisation called the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is working to foster partnerships among disability organisations, civil society and governments to help increase enfranchisement. A key area of concern is the enfranchisement, through improved accessibility of polling stations, of disabled people.

It has outlined five guiding principles:

IFES has been working in the field of disability since 1998, with disability programmes conducted in a number of countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, Kosovo, Ghana, Haiti and the Caribbean.

One area of concern is the exclusion by law of some people with psychiatric disorders or learning difficulties. IFES argues: "A test of competency cannot be used to deprive any single individual or group of individuals of the right to vote, unless that same test of competency is applied to each and every citizen."

The right of all voters to a secret ballot is also championed by IFES, which outlines ways in which blind and partially sighted people can be assured of privacy when voting.

However, it notes that at present, the practice of elections in nearly every nation forces visually impaired people to be dependent on another to cast their vote. And that violates the ideal of secrecy, which all democratic nations profess to uphold.

Picture of a Bangladeshi poster advocating accessibility for polling purposes.

It is not difficult to assure visually impaired voters of the same secrecy enjoyed by others. Several countries that still use a paper ballot have developed a ballot guide to help visually impaired voters independently mark their choice of candidate. This usually consists of a folder in which the regular ballot paper is inserted, with holes corresponding to the boxes on the ballot paper. Markers on the folder, such as Braille, or raised bumps or lines, help the voter navigate around the ballot sheet.

Countries that use electronic voting systems (EVMs), such as India, can also use markings in Braille on the EVMs. Some countries use a combination of Braille and synthesised voice.

In the United States, which many, though not all, would consider to be advanced in terms of its democracy, federal law has only recently ordered all voting systems to be accessible to visually impaired and disabled voters, with officials given until 2006 to put the necessary systems in place.

There would be an outcry at election time, if the government decreed that all voters had to climb to the top of a mountain in order to cast their vote. Yet that is how it can seem for people with physical disabilities, including formerly able-bodied elderly people, who are faced with several flights of stairs in order to get to the polling booth. For wheelchair users particularly, a second floor polling station is just as inaccessible as any mountain.

As more and more disabled people prove that they have a valuable contribution to make to society, inclusive voting strategies that promote full and equal participation must be implemented.

All polling stations should have level access from outside the polling station and all the way to the polling booth itself. And that polling booth should be low enough to be reached by a wheelchair user.

Therefore, surely it goes without saying that all polling stations and booths should be on the ground floor. Election authorities should consult local disability organisations for guidance when selecting polling stations.

Many industrialised nations have established guidelines for polling station design, and it is common to see election sites with temporary and/or permanent ramps to ensure easy access. In the UK a law has been passed to ensure that all public buildings have access for disabled people but this is still a long way off in most countries of the world.

It is also becoming increasingly common in some countries for polling sites to be set up in homes for the elderly, at hospitals, and in other places often used by elderly or disabled people.

Not all nations can afford to develop such tailor-made polling systems, but all can begin to address the issue of polling place accessibility. The best of these efforts is also the simplest: a commitment to have ground floor voting only, and working toward having ramped entrances to all polling stations.

All too often, election law provisions ignore disability or treat disabled voters as second-class citizens. To ensure that this attitude is changed, election officials should seek to consult regularly and openly with organisations of people with disabilities, and to seek their input in the design of outreach programs and ballots and in the establishment of criteria to select polling stations.

Only when disabled people are included in the electoral process from start to finish can an election be considered truly democratic. Organisations such as IFES and India's own National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, are working with partners all over the world towards the day when that vision is more than just a dim hope for the future.