“People tell the joke about the visually impaired Fianna Fáil man on his death bed,” Des Kenny says. “His wife, who has had the task of marking his ballot paper tells him: ‘Paddy you have been voting Fine Gael all your life’.”
Kenny, from Baldoyle in Dublin, is one of up to 250,000 people in Ireland who will be unable to cast a secret election ballot on February 26th because the paper takes no account of visually impaired voters.
He says the visually impaired have to bring a trusted friend to the polling station to cast their vote or, failing that, ask the presiding officer for help.
“While we are talking in low voices in the booth, I am sure that my choices can be overheard and my secret ballot is not truly secret,” he says. “I reveal my voting preference, and am guided to what I’m told is a ballot box – it could be the bin.”
Since casting his first vote in an election nearly 50 years ago, Kenny says that each time he has gone to exercise his franchise, he has “had to do so with varying interpretations of the assistance I required”.
“There was a time when presiding officers in the polling stations insisted that they were the only persons to meet the ‘trusted friend’ status,” he says. “There were times also when the release to me of the ballot paper was questioned by officious people at the table who sought guidance from a presiding officer as to whether or not I could vote at all.”
Cause for anger
Kenny adds: “I’m one of the ones who can laugh, but I fully support those who are angry about this.”
It’s not that ways haven’t been found in other jurisdictions for people who are blind or visually impaired to cast their votes with the very minimum of assistance.
In 2014, the National Disability Authority tested low-cost technological solutions with focus groups of the visually impaired. Text voting or guided electronic telephony exists in Australia.
A Braille template is employed in UK elections and involves a paper “sleeve”, manufactured in Co Derry, being placed over the ballot paper. It has Braille or embossed overprint alongside windows which sit over the ballot paper, so a visually impaired person can find the candidate of their choice.
It is not a perfect solution and only about 25,000 people in Ireland can read Braille, but it could help a further cohort.
The cost of the Braille sleeve could be delivered for €2-3 per unit, and each of the 500 or so polling stations would need only one sleeve, making it an extremely cost-effective move, Kenny says.
Negotiations have been ongoing with the Department of the Environment since 2006 but despite assurances dating back to at least 2009 it was researching solutions, the National Council for the Blind in Ireland is frustrated by the lack of progress.
Chris White, the council’s chief executive, said the organisation was concerned a large portion of the population are denied a secret ballot.
It is “disappointed” at the lack of progress and sees the opportunity to vote in secret as a basic step in equality.
The organisation said it held discussions with three of Alan Kelly’s predecessors in the department, with Phil Hogan telling them a solution would be found in the lifetime of the outgoing Government.
A legal case has been taken by Robert Sinnott of the Blind Legal Alliance.
When the case opened in 2014, the court was told the State had failed under the Constitution and European law to vindicate his right to cast his vote in secret.
The case is, however, being defended by the State in a move which White says could cost multiples of that of the introduction of Braille sleeves.
The department said the National Disability Authority advice on tactile voting devices was they were unlikely to provide a workable solution under the Irish single transferable vote system. However, the department said the advice was it could consider tactile voting devices at a referendum given it was a “Yes” or “No” choice.
Kenny says he feels as if he has been taken “to the top of the hill of promises” and led back down again.
“We are not perceived as being equal.”