Elections Canada’s recent efforts to make the voting process more accessible across the country have addressed but not eliminated the challenges that disabled voters often encounter at the polls, observers say.
The national electoral body has poured resources into improving accessibility protocols and procedures in the five years since it was taken to task by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
But advocacy groups and observers say disabled voters will likely still encounter some inaccessible polling stations, ballots that cannot be marked independently and a shortfall of election day supports on Oct. 19.
James Hicks, National Co-ordinator with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said Elections Canada has made accessibility an evident priority in the 18 months since it began consulting with disability organizations across the country.
The system, he said, has options and accommodations that did not always exist.
“Is it perfect? No. It’s a lot better than it has been in the past for sure.”
‘Checkered’ history with disabled community
Elections Canada’s history with the country’s disabled community could charitably be called checkered. Aspects of the entire voting process, from the distribution of pre-election material to the way ballots were cast, have been criticized by various disability groups over the years.
But one high-profile incident prompted the agency to revisit its processes after it was reprimanded by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2010.
The tribunal heard that a Toronto man, who relied on a walker for mobility and was trying to vote in a local byelection, was forced to enter an inaccessible polling station by sliding down a set of stairs on his behind.
The setup he encountered at the bottom was also too narrow to accommodate would-be voters with mobility aids. When a general election was called mere months later, the same polling station was still in use, barriers and all.
The tribunal ruled that James Hughes’ experience was a symptom of a broader systemic flaw that gave disabled voters short shrift.
“It is disappointing that in the disability rights, accessibility-heightened time in which we find ourselves living as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Mr. Hughes would have had to experience the humiliation and indignities of those two voting events,” Tribunal member Matthew Garfield wrote in his ruling.
Garfield ordered Elections Canada to cease using polling locations that did not provide “barrier-free access” and asked the agency to review a slew of practices ranging from its lease arrangements to the types of signs used on voting day.
Changes for October vote
Many of Elections Canada’s recent activities seem tailored to Garfield’s requests. The agency established a committee of disability groups that offered feedback on the voting process from start to finish.
Based in part on their feedback, Elections Canada recently completed an audit of all 25,000 prospective polling stations in the country and rated them all according to a list of 35 accessibility criteria.
The 2015 voter cards will feature a legend showing whether each local venue is fully accessible or not, and voters can check the Elections Canada website for a complete breakdown of how their polling station scored on each individual criterion.
At the polls, visually impaired voters will now have access to magnifiers and voting screens that let in more light, as well as previously available resources like braille candidate lists and templates that, theoretically, allow a person to mark their own ballot.
But disability rights activist David Lepofsky said the tools fall short, since users will still have to seek sighted help to see if the ballot is properly aligned within the template. Past elections, he said, have consistently been marred by half-baked solutions.
“The ability to mark the ballot has several components: independently marking your own ballot in private, and being able to verify that you marked it correctly,” he said. “Everything that’s out there falls short.”
Lepofsky hopes Elections Canada will one day join more than 40 Canadian municipalities and offer the ability to vote over the Internet, but spokeswoman Diane Benson says the logistical and security challenges of such a project mean it’s not currently under consideration.
The same goes for the use of accessible voting machines that allow blind voters to listen to a ballot and mark their choices alone. A 2010 report says the machines were given a limited test but later abandoned because they were impractical.
Benson says technology may play a greater role in the agency’s future accessibility improvements.
“We’re moving as society moves too, and the more there are advances there, the more we’re able to take advantage of them,” she said.
Hicks said disabled voters wanting to avoid potential election day hassles have multiple options to cast their votes ahead of time, including mail-in ballots and even home visits from Elections Canada workers.
All such services, however, need to be scheduled in advance, much like the sign language interpreters who can be booked to accompany deaf or hard-of-hearing voters to regular or advanced polls.
Hicks said Elections Canada’s next focus needs to be on spreading the word on the various alternatives available.
“No matter what the person’s barrier is, they should be able to vote,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting that information out to people.”