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Has a rush to hold UK European Parliament elections disadvantaged blind voters?

If the journalism is sound – and I can’t see anything not to think that at the moment – there’s a genuinely shocking story just out on Huffpost that anyone who cares about not just accessibility but democracy needs to be concerned about: Disabled people could be denied their right to vote independently and in secret in the now-confirmed UK end of May European elections, because there’s been no planning on how to help them.

In its 16th April piece Blind People ‘Could Be Denied Voting Rights’ In Euro Elections, the site quotes warnings from Labour that an alleged “chaotic and rushed timetable” risks undermining preparation that’s normally made for this important set of voters.

“The rushed and uncertain situation left electoral administrators just four working days to order tactile voting devices which are legally required to help blind and partially sighted people vote,” warns the site.

These devices are needed because they help blind and partially sighted people vote secretly and without help. They do this by providing British citizens (and European residents, who are also able to vote) with a reusable plastic template with Braille and raised numbers that can be attached to the ballot paper.

The problem is that electoral administrators were told on Friday April 5 to actively plan for European elections on May 23 – but were also informed on the same day by Pakflatt (UK), an election equipment company, that orders for tactile voting devices had to be completed on April 10 to get them in time for the poll.

The site contacted the Electoral Commission for a quote, and reports that the latter is “confident” that polling stations would be ready to meet legal requirements for ensuring blind and partially sighted people can cast their ballot fairly.

However, it goes on to quote a spokesperson to the effect that, “We know the timetable for these elections is pressing but the electoral community, across the UK, and the commission are experienced in delivering well-run elections and will draw upon this expertise in the interests of voters.

 “But, as with any electoral event, the shorter the lead in time, the more difficult it will be to deliver a well-run poll.”

Huffpost also contacted the Cabinet Office, which told it, “Government is working alongside partners such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People to make our democracy more accessible for disabled people, including promoting improved training for polling station staff to support people with sight loss to vote.”

But it seems a very tight window here – and at this stage it seems less useful to put any blame on any part of Brexit, and more helpful to do all we can to help make May 23rd as accessible a democratic experience for every voter, no matter what their level of physical ability.

The author, Jeff Mills is Founder at GrackleDocs, a pioneering software company building Add-Ons and applications for Google Apps for Work including Grackle Talks for Accessibility. 

He is also a Trustee and Board Member of UKAAF.

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