By Victoria Richards.
There is a belief, at least in democratic societies, that every individual has a right, and the responsibility, to vote and participate within the civic/political arena. We base our political assumption on the idea that everyone has the right to have their voice heard and that everybody has something to contribute to society. Implicit within this is the assumption that everyone has a unique perspective to offer.
Many generations of Brits have fought to open up the political arena to an ever growing group of individuals. From the Chartists to the Suffragists, many groups have fought for the right to vote and have their voices heard. But, does everyone have equal access to the voting process? I am going to argue that the voting process is inaccessible to many individuals with disabilities. I am then going to argue that web voting could be one of the tools that we can use to make the process more accessible to those who find other types of voting procedures inaccessible.
According to government statistics, there are 11 million disabled people currently living in Britain. These people occupy various positions within society. But, arguably, many of their number are amongst the poorest in society. They often face barriers when they seek to access work, employment, leisure activities and the civic arena. When trying to take their role in society they find that buildings are inaccessible, information is difficult to understand, and the people with whom they come into contact with do not respect them. (University College, London; Victoria Richards).
These things are even to be found within the voting booth. Scope, an organisation that fights for the rights of disabled people and produce a report of disabled people’s experience of voting following every election, outline the barriers faced by disabled people when they attempt to vote.
Disabled people find that they cannot park near the buildings; have their paths obstructed by steps and other obstacles; are disorientated by too bright/not bright enough lighting; find that the voting booths themselves are too high or too low; the papers are too difficult to understand and that the print is too small; and find that the polling station has run out of alternative format voting papers. (Scope, 2010).
Whilst many of these issues are being solved and voting booths are becoming more accessible, this doesn’t mean that all disabled people are able to use this method of voting. Disabled people are not only affected by social barriers but are also affected by the effects of their impairment, such as a lack of energy that often stops them from doing anything strenuous or even leaving their home. Therefore, they may find it difficult to find the energy required to attend the polling station. (Crow, 1996).
Many disabled people use the internet as a means to overcome their forced isolation. Many gain a sense of community, a connection to others, and a place to organise politically and engage with civic life via the web. People like Sue Marsh find that they can communicate their thoughts via blog posts, create communities to fight around the issues that matter to them and find the solidarity of shared communities. They use it for their entertainment and to do their day-to-day tasks such as banking. So, why can’t they use it to vote? It would allow those disabled people, who cannot leave their house, to be able to vote, enfranchising a silenced group.
In fact, disabled people in Canada are taking the authorities to court for the right to vote from their home. In fact, they argue that in depriving them of this opportunity, the authorities are infringing their human rights.
Yet, before we get excited, let’s look at the issues that must be addressed before we take this step. The internet may itself prove to be inaccessible to disabled people. Primarily, disabled people, living on a small income, may not be able to afford the expense of an internet connection. Many areas of the country find it hard to gain any kind of internet service. Many sites are inaccessible to disabled people. The text based nature of many sites makes them inaccessible to those with a learning disability while the small fonts may make it difficult for those with sight disabilities. (Internet Society, 2012).
If we are to truly have the mass democracy required for a vibrant democracy, then we need a democratic system that is accessible to all its citizens. That is what we have fought and, in part, won. But, we are not there yet. Disabled people, and other groups, are being left out. Polling is inaccessible to them. If we could solve some of the issues outlined above, then web voting could open up our democratic arena to more people; answering the cry of the disabled people that demand ‘nothing about us without us‘.
Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections? Let us know here.