Also: How to check if your polling station meets your accessibility requirements Tyler Bloomfield , CBC News
Posted: Sep 15, 2021
For some people, voting isn’t as simple as showing up to the polls on election day and casting a ballot.
From getting voter information to upholding the privacy of a ballot, there are barriers that exist in the voting process for people with disabilities.
CBC News readers have been asking us about them and the accessibility of the federal election in general.
Before someone with a disability even gets to the polls there are hurdles to clear. One, for example, is getting the voter information you need in a format that works for you.
Elections Canada offers voter information – like its guide to the federal election and list of accepted forms of ID to register and vote – as an American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) video with open captioning.
You can also order physical resources in braille, large print or as an audio CD.
For people who are deaf or partly deaf, Elections Canada also has an ASL version of a video explaining how it is making federal elections accessible and an ASL version of its video that covers voting assistance tools and services.
If a family member or friend has asked you for help voting, Elections Canada has a section on its website clarifying what is and is not allowed when offering support.
Accessibility at the polls
If you’re voting in person on election day, you’ll want to make sure your assigned polling station has everything you require to vote safely and accurately.
Returning officers use an accessibility checklist, which contains 37 criteria – 15 of which are mandatory.
A polling station, for example, is required to provide a level access instead of stairs to the entrance and the voting room must be on the same level as the entryway.
But Elections Canada does not mandate parking spaces for people with disabilities.
You can check to see exactly how accessible your nearest polling station is by searching your postal code on Elections Canada’s voter information service. If you are deaf or partly deaf you can Teletype (TTY) 1-800-361-8935 for more information.
If your assigned polling place does not meet your needs, the agency says to contact your local Elections Canada office and you may be issued a Transfer Certificate. This would allow you to vote at a more accessible polling place in your riding.
David Lepofsky is the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance and a visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. He points out that the COVID-19 pandemic also introduces barriers at the polls for electors with disabilities.
For instance, if a voter who is blind or partly blind shows up on their own, he says they might require another person to guide them, but “you can’t take someone’s arm and be guided if you’re trying to socially distance.”
Lepofsky adds that minimizing the distance between the doors of the polling station and where you go to cast your ballot could be one way to help address that issue, as well as including properly colour-contrasted tape and stanchions to assist people so they can know by touch.
Elections Canada says high-visibility physical distancing markers will be in place at polling places, so that electors who are partly blind can more easily see them and maintain physical distance.
Each polling station will also carry tools to make reading and marking your ballot more accessible. If you ask a poll worker they should be able to provide you with a large-print or braille list of candidates, tactile and braille voting templates, magnifiers, large-grip pencils and voting screens that let in more light.
The right to a private ballot
An issue Lepofsky says is harder to address is maintaining the right to a private ballot for people who are blind or partly blind.
“We have never had that right. We have had to either have somebody else mark our ballot for us, which means you have to tell someone else – a trusted friend or a public official – who you’re voting for,” he said.
“People without disabilities take this right for granted because they don’t even have to think about it.”
Elections Canada told CBC News in an email that the secrecy of those votes are maintained by the oaths taken by those who assist them.
“In the case of a poll worker, oaths are taken as part of the job when they provide assistance to an elector. It’s always done in the presence of a witness. If the elector requests assistance from someone they know, that person is required to sign an oath before they provide assistance,” said Matthew McKenna, a spokesperson for Elections Canada.
But Lepofsky says he believes the process still amounts to a systemic denial for people with disabilities to mark and verify a ballot on their own.
There are ways to ensure they can vote in private and to verify their choice, he says, but the federal government and Elections Canada have not applied those in this election.
More accessible voting methods
One of Lepofsky’s suggestions is to introduce more accessible ways of voting, like telephone voting. This method would allow electors to call in to vote and has been used in provincial elections across Canada.
In B.C., assisted telephone voting is available to voters who are blind, or who have a disability or underlying health condition that prevents them from voting on their own. It was also made available during the 2020 provincial election for people who had to self-isolate during the last week of the campaign period because of a positive COVID-19 test or exposure.
Introducing new technology and voting methods into federal elections raises security and accuracy concerns.
Aleksander Essex, an associate professor of software engineering at Western University in London, Ont., specializes in voting technology. He doesn’t recommend phone voting, he says, because of what he has seen in Ontario municipal elections that use the method.
He says there were instances where the call would drop, leading to more problems.
“The voter would call back and they would say, ‘Well, sorry, you can’t vote because you’ve already voted.’ So they had to go back and sort of work with the city to literally pull the vote out of the telephone system to have it reset.”
He acknowledges that methods like online voting could also reduce barriers, but he says the security risks outweigh the benefits.
“We can’t make this a zero-sum game between accessibility and cybersecurity. We have to have both.”
Lepofsky also mentioned that accessible voting machines are used in some places, but that they have had problems with reliability in the past.
Elections Canada says the voting methods used by Canadians are prescribed in the Canada Elections Act. Changes to the way votes are cast would require authorization from Parliament, typically in the form of legislative change.
“I don’t believe that we need to just accept the status quo, replete with disability barriers or do nothing,” said Lepofsky.