Disenfranchisement at its Worst

This evening I went to my local polling station, as did many other UK citizens, to cast my vote in the 2010 General Election. Unlike most others though, because I am blind I had to use a tactile template to lay over the ballot paper to enable me to cast my vote independently.

For those who have never seen one of these templates, I will do my best to describe it. It is a long, narrow plastic sheet with numbered flaps down the right hand side. Each flap has a tactile number and can be hinged back on itself. Each flap also comes to a point. The template has a sticky back which can be stuck to the form, in a similar way to a post-it note. the idea is that the template is placed with the flaps laying over the boxes on the form. the blind voter peals back the relevant flap and marks the form directly between the flap above and the flap below. Here is where the problem lies in my opinion: the template is only about a third of the width of the ballot paper and open to error.

On arrival at the polling station, it appeared that the member of staff who helped me, had no experience of the template and hadn’t read the instructions that came with it. He wasn’t even aware that the back was sticky, I had to peel off the paper that covered it. He first tried to take me to the end of the table where he had been sitting for me to cast my vote there, in full view of everyone else. I explained that this was not acceptable so he reluctantly took me to a booth. After trying to just lay the template over the form without sticking it, he eventually stuck it down and left. I marked my paper, put it in the box and left.

It was only whilst walking home with my partner that we compared notes. It appeared that my template had been placed fairly close to the left hand edge of the form, and my partner’s had been nearer the middle of the form. We phoned a friend and asked where the boxes appear on the ballot paper and were told that they are down the right hand side.

It would therefore appear that both our ballot papers are spoilt and we haven’t had a vote in this very important election.

If I never campaign for anything else in my life, I’m determined to get my voice heard on this one.

If you read this, I would urge you, please circulate it as widely as possible. I want as many people to realise how open to error the voting system is for blind people.

Our right to independence relies wholly on a sighted person to line the template up for us, and we have no way of checking that the vote has been cast properly.

I wonder how many other blind people’s ballot papers have been unknowingly spoilt today?

About Mel Griffiths

I live and work in Nottingham, England and am blind. This blog is often centred around things that happen to me because of being blind. This is my space to write and sometimes people will disagree with what I write, but its the one place I have in which to be frank and honest. I also like to reflect on the funnier side of life from time to time.
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44 Responses to Disenfranchisement at its Worst

  1. pauraque says:

    That’s awful. I linked to your post in the Accessibility Fail community on Dreamwidth.

  2. I’ll get a post up over at Shakesville.

  3. Was just linked to this by a friend. How terrible for you. Tweeted, and I hope it helps spread the word.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Wow. That utterly sucks. Posted on my facebook.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately I don’t have a blog, but I’ve emailed the BBC. This is completely unacceptable.

  6. ethelfleda says:

    Scope’s Polls Apart campaign tracks stuff like this at elections – and this stuff is depressingly common. Their survey has tick boxes for whether or not there are general accessibility provisions, and space to highlight particular problems: http://www.pollsapart.org.uk/

  7. lizzip says:

    This doesn’t make the behaviour of the staff any less bad, but – provided they actually lined the template up *vertically* so that the mark was unambiguously for a single candidate, the vote will be counted. Of course, given their attitude as reported here there’s no guarantee of that. :/
    I’ll pass this link on.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Possibly you already know this, but do get in touch with the Electoral Commission and tell them what happened! They are supposed to be keeping an eye on just this sort of thing.

  9. rebecca_star says:

    I linked to you here on Facebook.

  10. melspooner says:

    Thank You
    Thank you all for your links and suggestions. I will be writing to all the suggested people, in fact I have already written to my local council, the Electoral Commission, RNIB, Scope, etc. If anyone has any good links tothe media, I’d be pleased to try them.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m blind and had trouble yesterday too
    Me too – I’m not sure whether my pencil did actually mark the ballot paper or whether the X was even in the right place…
    The template felt like it may have slipped but only after i lifted it off the ballot paper, so i couldn’t ask the officer to check as she’d see my vote.
    I feel really cross about this as i really value democracy and my individual right to vote.
    On top of this we have to remember numbers instead of candidates as the template has numbers only not the candidates names.
    the officer reads down the ballot paper and you have to remember which number you want, this is harder than you’d think in practice.
    In Hackney i had 3 votes and 3 ballot papers and three templates. 12 names were on the council ballot, so things got hard to remember pretty quickly.
    I walked out of the polling station feeling cross and like i lost my vote rather than that “i’ve had my say” feeling which is just so vital in our democrascy.

  12. mybigfatdiet says:

    I worked at a polling station yesterday and I’d like to confirm that no instructions came with the templates, they just came as they were in the box. We also did not receive any advice or guidance during the polling clerk station about how to use them. We didn’t need to use ours in our polling station, but we played for it for quite a while and didn’t know, for example, that they were sticky on the back.

    • What? That really distresses me. It’s vitally important to the democratic process that poling station workers are taught about accessibility issues! I foolishly thought that was standard practice in the UK.

    • anjak_j says:

      Disgusting. To have the fact that they didn’t bother showing you’se how to use an accessibility aid for blind voters confirmed just makes me really fucking angry…

  13. fleurette67 says:

    Rant justified
    Hi Mel! After reading this entry, and all the comments on it so far, your rant about the difficulties you had voting yesterday is completely justified, in my opinion. It’s particularly disgusting that the people working at the polling stations didn’t receive any information or instructions about how to help blind people to use those templates: from your description they don’t sound terribly practical anyway. I don’t blame you for complaining to plenty of people about this.

    • Re: Rant justified
      it seems to me that blind people are expected to seed their privacy to sighted people and accept that. we can’t even get cash machines right in the UK, so the electoral process won’t happen any time soon.

      • david_feuer says:

        Re: Rant justified
        This is a bit off-topic, but where do they get cash machines right? As an ATM tech in the U.S., I have seen:

        Banks that don’t install voice guidance systems at all;
        Private audio systems that don’t work (I seem to be the only one who cares enough to fix them);
        Buggy voice guidance software that either tells the user to press the wrong button or is simply missing any directions at all for certain steps in a transaction;
        A general lack of even limited braille instructions for deaf-blind users and those who don’t happen to be carrying headphones.
        Screens so dim that users with good vision struggle to read them, which would leave those without it in the dark.

        It appears that a few institutions have started to take accessibility seriously, while others don’t seem to care much. I would identify them here, but the nature of my job would make that unwise.

      • no accessible cash pion
        no accesible cash points in UK bar two. we have no accessible cash points in the UK bar two in scotland i think. in the Uk we have not even got to the point of thinking about switching on ATM access for blind users. that’s just my point.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Rant justified
        I lived in the States bacl in 1996 for 3 years and i had to ad mit to having a giggle to myself when we rolled up at a drive-through ATM and there sure enough was a cash machine with braille on. Can you imagine? Just a little light-heartedness.

      • david_feuer says:

        Re: Rant justified
        It actually makes perfect sense to have Braille on a drive-through machine. The blind person could be sitting in the back of a friend or relative’s car, or the back of a taxi. I doubt that would be the most pleasant way for a blind person to use an ATM in most cases, but sometimes there will only be drive-up ATMs, or those will be the only ones that are working, or it will be raining and the drive-up ones are sheltered, etc.
        By the way, I forgot to mention that the voice guidance is typically incredibly slow and annoying—obviously not designed by anyone who actually has to use it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Saw this on Shakesville, have left a link to here on this post at the Guardian election blog. It’s asking for stories from people who got turned away because of the 10pm cut off time, but thought your story was relevant enough to ‘polling chaos’ to add too. Might be worth emailing Matthew Weaver who wrote the article?

  15. Anonymous says:

    This is a scandalous election and non democratic UK
    I can believe how ignorant people are today and also how thoughtless. I wish people with sight could open their eyes to their selfishness and ignorance of other people around them. I used templates in banking on cheque books, these were the same size with braille on and designed to hold over. They should let you write the name on a paper of the party you choose to vote for instead if they can’t use templates or ensure you get a postal vote in braille. Many people didn’t even get in to vote by ten pm despite numerous visits and queueing for hours. If they gave you a paper and spoilt your ballot paper they during the course of this could’ve seen a few others in to vote the standard way. Our voting system is under review now.

  16. Anonymous says:

    This will be heard on twitter and by email to LD MPs
    This is a unfair system to blind and partially sighted people and has also been unfair to those who queued to vote and weren’t seen. So many denied the chance to vote and so many spoiled ballot papers. UK voting system needs a complete overhaul. Can you not vote by post with a braille vote? They get sent earlier and can be handed in at polling stations. If not then this is really bad news for our voting system.

  17. What a terrible story. I’m circulating this amongst all my friends on facebook.

  18. melspooner says:

    Postal Vote
    In answer to an earlier question, postal votes are not available in Braille. A standard print form must be filled in which means that the blind voter once again has to rely on the help of a sighted person.
    Very interested to read the person’s comment who worked at the polling station. I’d always been told that instructions were circulated with these templates and am horrified to learn that they are not.

  19. nekokonneko says:

    I’ll be tweeting this and I’ll see if I can get this posted on some lj comms.

  20. tweeted about it…that’s appalling, and I’m not surprised you’re so angry!

  21. Anonymous says:

    Talk to Scope about this. They’ll very interested, as part of their Polls Apart campaign. Distressing stuff.

  22. wrangler says:

    I don’t know what region you’re in but speaking as a Presiding Officer, the votes may not have been spoiled. It isn’t necessarily important whether the mark is placed on the left or the right as long as clear intention can be seen. So, your mark wouldn’t have to be in the box. We accept rings around the candidate’s name, for example, or even a mark against the number that corresponds to them.
    That said, it is NOT right that you were treated this way by the staff – the crucial part of training for this work is that we must maintain secrecy of votes at all times. Have you considered reporting this to the Electoral Commission? I think they need to be made aware of it.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Hi Mel,
    I had trouble voting too.
    I had no idea how to use the tactile template, or even that it was a tactile template, and neither did any of the staff at the polling station I went to.
    I arrived via taxi and the driver took me up to the desk. A staff member took me over to a different table (not a private booth) and handed me the template.
    It appeared to me to be simply a piece of card with the numbers 1-10 down one side and a little tactile bump next to each one. I had no idea that the back of the template was sticky and that you were meant to stick it over the printed ballad paper. Nor that the little bumps were flaps that were meant to align with the positions of the tick boxes so you knew where to put your x.
    I explained to the staff member that what he had given me appeared to be simply a list from 1-10 and that it wasn’t much help.
    So he read out to me the list of candidates and their parties then wantedd to hand me a pen and have me mark the printed ballad paper myself.
    I explained that I couldn’t do this and that he’d have to do it for me. So I told him my choice and he markd it for me.
    As I’ve said, we weren’t in a private booth and so several people could’ve overheard my vote. Indeed, the taxi driver had stuck with me and was right behind me at the time and actually commented on my choice!
    So technically my vote was completely illegal.
    The staff at the polling station were not unhelpful and they were very friendly but clearly had no idea whatsoever how the tactile system was supposed to work for blind persons.
    Paul Hunt

  24. dwgism says:

    Sadly the voting experience isn’t any better if you’re disabled in other ways. I’m mobility impaired and while I managed to vote the lack of forethought (like picking a building with on-site disabled parking) left me shaking in pain.
    I’m annoyed enough about both this and yesterday’s experience of ATOS (their reputation flatters them) that it’s finally kicked me into starting a LJ, with yesterday’s access fails as the first post.

  25. barakta says:

    I know of a blind person whose initial attempt was spoilt by this problem, I shall point him at this and see if he wants to comment.

  26. melspooner says:

    the Electoral commission
    Thanks to those who have suggested that I report this to the electoral Commission. I did this first thing this morning by Emailing info@electoralcommission.org.uk. I would urge other commenters here to do the same. I also filled in Scoe’s Polls apart Survey which is very useful for people with all types of disability.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Fear not!
    Can I just second wrangler’s statement, word for word? I was vote counting today and we accept votes purely on intention as represented by the evidence. I think this is standard across the country, otherwise it would be unfair to voters in constituencies where the guidelines were not so forgiving.
    The worst that would have happened is that your vote would have been put in a disputed pile, shown by the count supervisor to the observers from all parties who show an interest (for us they were very respectful of the apparent intentions of the voter and more than happy to agree all such papers at face value), and then counted as normal with as much confidence as any other vote. You could have drawn a spiral, or a heart, or whatever you wanted as long as it was clear that you wished to indicate support for a certain candidate. In our count, votes were allowed even when a voter had crossed out a wrong entry and started again as long as it was totally clear what they meant to express.
    I hope that this eases your mind a little bit after what must have been a distressing and worrying time.
    This in no way excuses anyone who made you feel uncomfortable or unhappy with your voting experience. Your satisfaction that the electoral process was carried out fairly and to your satisfaction should have been as important (if not more important given the increased potential for you to be made to feel excluded or uncertain) as any other voter’s experience.
    As a point of interest, how are ballot papers made legible to blind/partially-sighted voters? Is there braille on the guide you use? How is it done for those who don’t read braille? I would love to know.

    • melspooner says:

      Re: Fear not!
      Thanks cicee, I’m hoping that your are right.
      In answer to your questions, the template has raised numbers rather than braille on it to identify which candidate you are voting for. For partially sighted people there is a large print ballot paper on display for them to read but they must still fill in a standard print paper. There is no Braille for blind people, we have to have the paper read to us and remember the candidate numbers. this was very easy for me as we only had one ballot in this constituency yesterday but it can become more complicated when there are also local council elections.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Fear not!
        Phew-ee, yeah, local elections would be a nightmare, picking three candidates from 10 or more? Unless you have strong party-political allegiences to follow it would be so confusing! Not to mention the fact that independent candidates probably don’t deliver their material in alternative formats and there are always a couple of those at local level. Thanks for the considered response, if I am a station-assistant next year (for the new election I expect we’ll be having) I am going to bear these issues very much in mind.
        Katherine at FWD wanted this comment posted here for her:
        “Although I’m not in the UK, I’d like to echo what Cicee said above [referring to my first comment] When I worked processing votes once, we did the same thing. Although, I don’t know how votes are processed in the UK general election. Ours (for the local body election that I worked on) are processed electronically by character recognition software and then checked against a scanned copy – NOT the original unless the scan is unclear. I would be inclined to say that if your vote(s) were made in the wrong place on the page, that it/they might get missed unless you have a particularly aware person processing your particular vote(s). Personally, I picked up a vote that had been made in *green highlighter* because the scan had picked up one or two pixels of it. The person who checked that vote before me did NOT pick up on it. I have no idea whether the 3rd step of checking would have picked up on that.
        While people might feel reassured by Cicee’s statement, I wouldn’t guarantee that every vote that is only slightly invalid would be picked up. It is really shameful that a better system isn’t in place to allow people who have difficulty voting on the default papers to have their vote.
        Also the talk of a “template” worries me, as over here our voting forms are put in a random order, and there are several different random configurations that they can be in.
        I would post this over at the original, but Livejournal is blocked where I am now. If some kind person would like to reproduce my comment over there (and attribute it to me) you will have my thanks (as I can’t guarantee I’ll remember to visit this from a computer that doesn’t have Livejournal blocked)”
        So, that was Katherine’s view, I’ll post you my reply too in case you are interested, and because I *DO* want you to be reassured (believe me, I accepted some duff-looking votes, numbered ones, ticked ones, ones with a mark in the middle of the line, ones with a mark by the candidates’ numbers, ones in a variety of pens/pencils etc, etc, the idea is for everyone to have their say however they express it on the paper):
        It’s all human-powered over here, no machines. It’s quite beautiful, all those people in the same place literally making sure democracy is carried out, moving the wheels of the democratic system by hand. If a vote was discounted it would be because when the sorter picked it up they could not figure out which pile to put it in or thought that it contained some mark which might discount it. This decision would have to be seconded and thirded, with whether ‘clear intention’ is shown always being the guiding principle. Plus all the time counters are constantly observed by the party representatives who will jump on anything they think will give them a lead over their opponents. I hope we never move to automated counting. Having used machines to count cash I am appalled at the accuracy rate compared to human counting.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Came here from FWD/Forward, and will be linking to this from my own blog tomorrow (sorry I’m so late, was on vacation). This is very unacceptable what happened to you.

  29. andrewhickey says:

    I wouldn’t worry – it won’t count as spoiled. I attended a count, and ballots where people had ticked in the middle of a candidate’s name, or circled them, or pretty much anything that was an unambiguous positive mark for a single candidate, was counted.
    That said, it’s ludicrous that there are no braille ballot papers or anything similar…

  30. Anonymous says:

    Polls Apart
    I work in the press office at the disability charity Scope and we are looking for people who are willing to talk to their local media about their voting expereinces.
    Our ‘Polls Apart’ campaign aims to end the exclusion of disabled people from the democratic process: http://www.pollsapart.org.uk/
    If you’d like to share your experiences please call 020 7619 7702 or email me at warren.kirwan@scope.org.uk

  31. Pingback: Five Years On and Blind People Still Shut Out of the Voting Process | Random Happenings and Observations

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