My name is Abigail and my name is Tina for the purposes of this blog post. We are both blind. We are just two of approximately ten thousand people in Kent who are visually impaired or have severe visual impairment.
audio version of blog post.
Yesterday, or rather in the early hours of this morning, we heard that the make up of Folkestone & Hythe District Council had changed dramatically. However, as blind people we were disenfranchised. We did not vote. We wanted to but due to lack of resources available, our vote would not have been secret.
In none of the polling stations various family and friends visited to cast their ballot in secret, did any of them see or witness:
at least one large version of the ballot paper which shall be displayed inside the polling station for the assistance of voters who are partially-sighted
Not one such paper in any polling station in the Folkestone & Hythe District, how was the law ignored – overlooked – and why were Abigail and I disenfranchised? Is the Returning Officer blind? Of course not. She can see and read the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983, just like you can.
That… the returning officer’s – Dr Susan Priest – general duty “to do all such acts and things as may be necessary for effectually conducting the election in the manner provided by .. the rules.”
Rule 29 goes onto say:
“a device of such description as may be prescribed for enabling voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion.”
The device we are talking about is a tactile voting device (TVD) pictured. The fundamental problem is that TVDs do not allow blind and partially sighted people like Abigail and I to vote independently as we would still need help from the Presiding Officer (the official in charge of the polling station) or a member of our close family to read to us the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper. This information is not contained on the TVD and there is therefore no way for a blind voter can know which flap on the TVD corresponds to which candidate.
We had no access to allow us to vote more easily including audio voting booths and telephone voting. These were not an option ever provided or offered by Folkestone & Hythe District Council. The Council did announce they were to trial dictatphones at some NOT all polling stations and then announced it on Twitter. Of course Abigail & I couldn’t read it, demonstrating we believe how little thought went into the announcement.
Now of course, if we use the TVD somebody would have to read the names of the candidates out to us and then we would put our X next to the candidates we wished to vote for. Such a system does NOT let us vote independently and in secret. Many of the 10,000 blind people in Kent did not vote, we understand. However, many of us would have done so if it had been more accessible.
In a High Court judgement handed down today 03/05/2019, Mr Justice Swift said
“A device that does no more than enable blind voters to identify where on a ballot paper the cross can be marked, without being able to distinguish between one candidate from another, does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote. Enabling a blind voter to mark ballot papers without being able to know which candidate she is voting for is a parody of the electoral process established under the rules”.
Abigail and I do not hear the Folkestone & Hythe Labour Party speaking up for the few blind people in Kent but we do for the many sighted people. Nor do we hear how the Shepway Green Party who espouse to reduce inequality in the district, spell out how they will do so for us. We are told the Folkestone & Hythe Liberal Democrats have nothing on their website, and as for the Folkestone & Hythe Conservatives, well forget it.
We met the public face of the Shepwayvox Team; whose ward we live in, while he was leafleting and raised this issue with him. He has given us this platform today, as we were aware of the impending High Court decision.
Abigail and I want to vote just like you. We want our vote to be secret and in the 21st Century we believe Dr Susan Priest – Returning Officer of Folkestone & Hythe District Council should be able to facilitate this. We hope that over the next four years the parties who all allege to be disabled friendly, really do become so, because so far their actions have failed to live up to the hype.