While making rabble rousing speeches about levelling-up, stripping benefits from people in genuine need, and hiking taxes on working people with vague promises to spend them on social care sometime in the future, the Government apparently feels that another excellent use of its valuable time is to change the rules on how elections are run. As I write the Elections Bill is being examined by a Parliamentary Committee prior to MPs voting on it in November. If passed, its provisions will govern how future elections will be run in the UK. I’d like to say that rarely has a piece of legislation risked taking so much from so many. Unfortunately, following the past six years of this Tory Government, it’s far from alone.
The proposal to require voter ID that massively favours the old and rich over the young, the poor, and the disadvantaged, has been well publicised. Less well known is the effect the bill could have on blind and partially sighted voters.
The Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the right for everyone in the UK to vote in secret. A survey of blind voters for the May 2021 elections found that four fifths of them still weren’t able to take advantage of this basic right. You would think the Government was working towards rectifying this travesty. Instead, as appears to be the wont of Johnson’s administration, the new provisions make the requirements more vague, reduce the legal protections, and pass the buck for making decisions down to poorly paid and over-worked presiding officers who, often through no fault of their own, have no idea how to make voting accessible, independent, and secret for disabled people.
The basic problem for blind and partially sighted voters is that we can’t see where to mark our ballot paper, and nor can we read the names of the candidates standing. The first problem can be partially solved using a tactile plastic guide with holes to show where crosses should be made. But even if the guide is available (and it often isn’t), the guide doesn’t indicate the names of the candidate and so it falls to either a sighted companion or the presiding officer to read out the list of candidates and indicate where on the plastic guide their name falls.
I have been very fortunate to be able to vote with my fully sighted wife. For a blind person in the UK this is probably as good as it gets. It’s just possible that her deathbed confession might be that all my votes were cast for the Monster Raving Loony Party, but I doubt it. Many blind people are not as fortunate as me and have to put their trust in total strangers. In the technological age in which we live this state of affairs is totally unacceptable. Instead of dodging the issue the Government should be trying to address the needs of a constituency that is three hundred and fifty thousand strong.
More details regarding the proposed changes and how they affect blind and partially sighted people can be found on the RNIB’s website. Take a look and if you want to help then raise this issue with your MP. Our right to a secret ballot is the bedrock of our democracy. I, and all Liberal Democrats, want to see that strengthened, not whittled away.