By Helen Henderson
Published On Sat Apr 30 2011
Former MPP Gary Malkowski, special advisor to the president of the Canadian Hearing Society, says those responsible for overseeing federal, provincial and municipal voting “all lack the budget to fund services that would allow for full participation of deaf Canadians in electoral activities.”
Come Monday, it’s a pretty safe bet we’ll be tallying a few horror stories about barriers that prevent people with disabilities from exercising their right to vote.
It happens every election in every jurisdiction despite years of advocacy and laws that explicitly mandate accessibility. There’s no doubt things have been slowly improving. Yet many attitudes and physical environments still work against inclusion.
Among other things, no one who is deaf can be sure they will be able to communicate their wishes, those who use wheelchairs still may find their way impeded, and people who are blind have no means of independently verifying that their vote has been assigned to the candidate of their choice.
And that’s just at the ballot box.
Even if all polling stations were perfectly inclusive, election legislation doesn’t govern campaigns.
“The last time I attended an all-candidates meeting … participants who wished to ask a question were required to write it on a card and put it into a
box, which posed another barrier for me,” says John Rae, vice-president of the
Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.
Those responsible for overseeing federal, provincial and municipal voting “all lack the budget to fund services that would allow for full participation
of deaf Canadians in electoral activities,” adds former MPP Gary Malkowski, special advisor to the president of the
Canadian Hearing Society.
Maybe so. But some jurisdictions in last October’s municipal elections did find a better way. Their forays into telephone and Internet voting won kudos
from accessibility advocacy groups. They also saved money and increased voter turnout from previous years. Something to think about when sending feedback to Elections Canada and its provincial counterparts.
“Absolutely, it was a success,” says Lorraine Brace, municipal clerk and manager of legislative services for the Town of Cobourg, which used telephone and Internet voting exclusively in October. “We even took touch screens to seniors’ homes, and many residents liked it so much they’ve been using computers ever since.”
Cobourg started testing telephone and Internet voting five years ago after it passed a bylaw and signed an agreement with Halifax-based Intelivote Systems, which has already worked successfully in Britain.
In 2003, the last time the town used the traditional voting system, total municipal election expenses were $81,627 and there was a 36 per cent turnout.
In 2006, when Cobourg combined traditional voting with a phone and Internet system, election costs rose to $87,895 and voter turnout to 45 per cent.
But in 2010, when it switched totally to Internet and phone voting, costs dropped to $52,460 and turnout increased to 47 per cent, Brace reported to the
mayor and council this month.
In addition to making the vote accessible to people with disabilities, Brace says it made life easier for everyone. “No coats, no boots, no parking, no
weather or parking issues,” she says.
Nobody had to get up an hour earlier so they could vote before going to work. Nobody had to squeeze their trip to the polling station in between picking
up the kids and getting dinner on the table.
No doubt the citizens of Cobourg will remember that when they trudge to the polls Monday, and go through it all again in October to vote in the provincial
Elections Ontario has publicly posted all the polling stations it plans to use, a right fought for by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance. Voters can check them out and let administrators know by May 6 if they feel changes or relocations are necessary.
It’s time for phone and Internet voting to make all of this a thing of the past. Australia and some parts of Britain have solved security concerns and are
converts. Surely it’s time for this country to move forward.
Helen Henderson is a freelance writer and disability studies student at Ryerson University. Her column appears Saturdays.