Visually impaired man sues State over voting facilities

Robert Sinnott claims his ability to cast ballot in secret impaired by current situation

A severely visually impaired man has claimed his right to vote in secret has been breached by the State’s alleged failure to provide an appropriate mechanism allowing him do so.

Robert Sinnott 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, the High Court heard.

Despite his disability, Mr Sinnott, with assistance of an educational support worker, a specially developed computer software package and a strong visual magnifier, 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 proceedings before Mr Justice Tony O’Connor, Mr Sinnott (45), a father of two, from James’s Street, Dublin, and member of the Blind Legal Alliance campaign group, claims the State has breached his rights under the Constitution, European Convention on Human Rights and UN Charter for People with Disabilities in not having a mechanism allowing the visually impaired 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. He also contends there is a relatively simple solution available involving a braille sleeve being placed over the ordinary ballot paper.

His case is against the Minister for the Environment, Community, and Local Government and the State who deny his claims, including he has been deprived of a secret ballot. They plead practical problems and legal issues have been identified in the use of tactile templates and it was likely primary legislation would need to be amended to allow for their use.

Secure secret voting

Opening his case this week, Michael McDowell SC, with Michael Lynn SC, said the State has been aware since at least 2011 there are mechanisms that could be readily adapted for the introduction and maintenance of secure secret voting for visually impaired persons in elections here.

His side disputed the State’s claims this action was effectively a collateral attack on the electoral laws and contended there is no significant legal impediment, and none in practise, to using a means of voting such as a template.

The failure to introduce regulations allowing visually impaired persons vote in secret breached Mr Sinnott’s rights, including to participate in the democratic process, to privacy and to freedom of expression, counsel argued. Mr Sinnott was entitled to declarations he has a right to vote by secret ballot in Irish and European elections and referendums.

While the State argued trials of ballot paper templates indicated no single solution was likely to work for most voters with sight loss, there does not have to be a single solution and there may have to be different arrangements depending on the nature of the impairment, he said. The notion there must be “one size that fits all” was “misconceived”.

In evidence, Mr Sinnott said he was visually impaired from birth in June 1971 and as a child could see at best about 2 to 3 per cent of what a non-visually impaired person might see.

He went to a residential home for the blind at age four, St Mary’s Merrion, where he was taught to read braille. He taught himself to also read print and, at age seven, went to St Joseph’s “Asylum for the Blind”, as it was then known.

“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.”

While discouraged to read print, he did do so using a magnifier and taught himself to read and write, he said

He was last able to vote unassisted in 2009 but needed assistance to vote in 2011. His concern is not just he has to share his vote with another person but that he cannot verify he has voted the way he wants to, he said.

The case resumes on Tuesday.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times