People who are blind or visually impaired will be able to vote in the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment without assistance for the first time.
The use of new tactile ballot templates at polling stations means thousands of people with limited or no sight will be able to cast their votes in secret in the May referendum.
The introduction of these new ballot papers follows the High Court case of Robbie Sinnott who initiated proceedings in 2016 against the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the State.
Mr Sinnott complained he was being deprived of his right to a secret ballot because he had to ask a polling station presiding officer to complete his ballot paper and ultimately won the case in April 2017.
Mr Justice Tony O’Connor declared at the time that the Minister had a duty to provide arrangements to facilitate voters with visual impairments to mark their ballot papers without assistance.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has now produced a tactile “ballot paper template” – a plastic device which a voter places over the ballot paper and features raised lettering, large print and Braille. The new template, which will be available at every polling station around the country, also has cut out section to assist people in finding where to mark the vote.
There are 54,810 people with sight loss in Ireland, according to the 2016 Census.
Chief executive of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) Chris White urged people with sight loss to contact their regional council branch ahead of the referendum to test out the new templates and ensure they are comfortable using the system.
“This is an historic year for people who are blind or vision-impaired,” said Mr White. “Up to now their vote was not secret, they had to discuss their choice with somebody else and they could not even be sure that their preferred vote went into the ballot box. This situation was never acceptable to the NCBI and we are delighted that our recommendations have been taken on board by the department.”
Robbie Sinnott also welcomed the introduction of the new templates, saying that while people with vision impairments always had the right to vote in theory, their right could never really be implemented in practice. “It was completely unacceptable that we had to ask people to come with us as we exercised our constitutional rights,” he said. “I have looked forward to this day for so long.”
Audrey Tormey from the NCBI described the introduction of the new ballot templates as "a monumental step forward for people who are blind or vision impaired. Just because I can't see should not mean I can't exercise my constitutional rights, discreetly and in secret. No more will I feel that my desire to vote is lesser than somebody else's who just happens to be able to see.