New regulations to allow visually impaired to vote unaided in referendums

Case in which State is being sued told on Tuesday of rules agreed on October 20th

Robbie Sinnott:  he says he must ask a polling station presiding officer to complete his ballot paper, meaning he is being deprived of his right to a secret ballot

Robbie Sinnott: he says he must ask a polling station presiding officer to complete his ballot paper, meaning he is being deprived of his right to a secret ballot

 

New electoral regulations allowing for visually impaired people to vote without assistance in referendums by using a special ballot paper template have been made in recent days, lawyers for the State have told the High Court.

Mr Justice Tony O’Connor said he was “surprised” to learn, midway through the action by severely visually impaired Robbie Sinnott, that regulations which impact on the issue for the court to decide were made on October 20th and published in Iris Oifigiúl last Friday.

Among various claims in his action which opened last July, Mr Sinnott alleges the State has breached his right to vote in secret by failing to provide an appropriate mechanism allowing him to do so. His case is against the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the State, who deny his claims.

When the case was due to resume on Tuesday, Mr Justice O’Connor agreed to adjourn it after Mr Sinnott’s lawyers said they wanted time to “recalibrate” the claim in light of the new regulations, made by Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney. Those provide for returning officers to provide ballot paper templates at each polling station in referendums to allow a voter a means of identifying the squares on the ballot paper on which they mark their votes.

Michael McDowell SC, for Mr Sinnott, said the State appeared to have conceded “a large part” of the case and he wanted to consider how the case might be “recalibrated” in light of the regulations of which his side were unaware until now.

Frank Callanan SC, for the State, opposed an adjournment. The signing of the regulations was not a concession of a constitutional right and Mr McDowell “knows that full well”, he said. The judge said he was surprised at the “vehemence” of the State’s objection to an adjournment.

Mr Sinnott, he said, was in court to seek vindication of his constitutional rights and it was not surprising his lawyers wanted time to recalibrate their submissions which would hopefully net down the issues.

Mr Sinnott (45), a father of two, James’s Street, Dublin, and member of the Blind Legal Alliance, was born with several visual impairment, is totally blind in his left eye and expects to be unable to see at all within four years. He told the court he went to residential homes for the blind from the age of four. “That’s how the State handled people with a visual impairment back then, out of sight, out of mind,” he said, “but, you know, I got over it.”

With the assistance of an educational support worker, a specially developed computer software package and strong visual magnifier, Mr Sinnott is pursuing a PhD in Irish at Trinity College having previously obtained an honours arts degree from UCD and a higher diploma in folklore.

In his action, Mr Sinnott claims the State has breached his rights – including to participate in the democratic process, to privacy and to freedom of expression – under the Constitution, European Convention on Human Rights and UN Charter for People with Disabilities in not having a mechanism allowing the visually impaired to cast their votes in secret. He claims he must ask the polling station presiding officer to complete his ballot paper, which effectively means he is being deprived of his right to a secret ballot.

The State has been aware since at least 2011 of mechanisms that could ensure secret voting for visually impaired persons in elections here, he claims. He argues he has a right to vote by secret ballot in Irish and European elections and referendums.