I Vote, You Vote... And Them?

Overcoming legal and practical barriers to enable disabled voters to actively participate in social and political life.
Rodolfo Cattani

European citizens with disabilities do not have full voting rights in the 2019 European elections. Several barriers limit the exercise of this fundamental right. The new European Parliament will have to commit itself to eliminate this injustice.


From a forthcoming research led by the European Economic and Social Committee and a report produced by the European Blind Union (EBU) emerges a worrying picture about the participation of citizens with disabilities in public and political life in the European Union. In many EU Member States, there are laws or administrative provisions that exclude voters with disabilities from participating in European Parliament elections. Around 500,000 citizens from 16 Member States have been deprived of voting rights because of a physical or sensory disability or mental health problems. The most obvious form of exclusion is the impossibility for a disabled person to access the polling station, a strong signal of denial of the right to participate in political life. This occurs in as many as 12 States, where the law does not allow changing the electoral polling station to which the elector is assigned based on residence with another, more suited to the needs of the person with disability. In other countries the participation of persons with disabilities is hampered by a series of limitations within the polling station itself. In eight States anyone who is not able to go to the polling station cannot vote, as there is no alternative way of voting (postal voting, voting with mobile ballot box or electronic voting). Three of these States offer the possibility of voting by proxy, a solution that cannot be considered a valid alternative as the voter with disabilities cannot directly exercise their right to vote.


Poster for the disability movementIn 18 Member States, it is not possible for visually impaired voters to vote independently as they only have the possibility of having the help of someone who will assist them in the voting exercise. In one State such assistance can only be provided by a member of the electoral commission. Another factor that prevents persons with disabilities from voting independently is the inefficient regulations or organizational provisions, such as the absence of information in order to answer their different needs: obstacles to their mobility or complexity of administrative procedures setting correct voting procedures.


Current EU legislation deals with some aspects of parliamentary elections and there are no formal obstacles because it is expressed in relation to voting options for disabled people. We can now say that the newly elected Parliament will have to adopt a formal legislative initiative and that it will be subsequently implemented by all Member States.


International and community legal rights

The right to vote for the election of the European Parliament is guaranteed to persons with disabilities by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on December 10, 1947, stated in particular in section 25 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the UN on December 16, 1966, and, more specifically, in section 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and entered into force on March 3, 2008.


Section 29 explicitly obliges States Parties to the Convention that disabled people can participate effectively and fully in public and political life on an equal basis and also lists a series of measures allowing people to exercise their right. Sections 9 and 12 of the Convention, which sanction respectively the right of disabled people to accessibility in the broad sense and the equal recognition before the law to have full legal capacity in public and political life.


At the European level, the rights of persons with disabilities are protected by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which states that citizens have, among other things, the right to vote in European Parliament elections. Section 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union establishes the right of all EU citizens to vote in parliamentary elections. Section 21 prohibits any discrimination based, namely, on disability and Article 26 states that the Union recognizes and respects the right of persons with disabilities to have access to measures ensuring their independence and participation in the life of the community. In reality, in recent years the affirmation of the right to vote of persons with disabilities has evolved from mere declarations of principle to the adoption of more concrete measures. However, there remain legal barriers and practices that are difficult to overcome.


Legal barriers

The main legal barriers that limit the right to vote of persons with disabilities are the following:

- the legal denial of the right to vote;

- changes in Member State legislation;

- bureaucratic and administrative complications;

- the lack of awareness about the problems of voters with disabilities.

Demonstrator for the rights of persons with disabilities in the European Parliament

The right to vote of persons with disabilities in every election, as for those of the European Parliament, must be recognized not only in light of the before mentioned international and community standards, but above all as a fundamental element of their human dignity. It is completely unacceptable that persons with disabilities subject to legal protection because of their disability can still be denied the right to vote, as unfortunately it still happens in most States.


In fact, only in 11 States citizens with disabilities cannot be deprived of their right to vote: Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Holland, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.


European institutions must make every effort to ensure that any legislation restricting the right to vote of persons with disabilities be removed from the legislative framework of all Member States.


Practical barriers

Elections of the European Parliament take place at the national level and therefore practical measures to facilitate the exercise of the right to vote must be taken by competent national authorities. The practical barriers that limit the exercise of voting by persons with disabilities are many, but they are all due to substantial ignorance and indolence by Member States.


Here are the key ones:

- difficulty in accessing information;

- impossibility to vote because of inaccessible polling stations;

- difficulty in managing the ballot;

- impossibility of taking advantage of early voting;

- unavailability of postal voting;

- difficulty of voting with mobile ballot box;

- possibility of proxy voting;

- electronic voting;

- voting in long-term care institutions or hospitals;

- obligation to vote;

- voting in a state of permanent residence other than that of origin.


Information on dates and modalities of the elections, as well as on the appropriate supports for persons with disabilities must be appropriately disseminated in order to take into account the different types of disabilities with particular attention to the needs of blind and deaf voters as well those who live with cognitive or mental disabilities. To this end it is essential to resort to the collaboration of organizations representing persons with disabilities.


The media for the general public does not always reach persons with disabilities, so it is important to provide targeted forms of communication, such as Braille, sign language and texts in plain language, or videos. Since the issue about polling stations accessibility is currently widespread in all States, it would be useful to allow persons with disabilities to move from the assigned inaccessible seat to another better suited to their needs. Furthermore, every disabled person should be free to choose their assistant during the vote.


Another problem is the ballot slips and the way we vote. It often happens that the type of slip and voting methods do not allow for a direct vote requiring the intervention of an assistant, especially if in addition to the list voting system, it is also possible to indicate preferences for individual candidates.


There are currently different ways of compiling which must be complied with, depending on whether a sign has to be placed on the ballot in a given position, that a box should be marked, a number circled, choosing from a package of cards the one with the indication of the political party for which to vote, write names or numbers on the card.


Considering these types of operations, Member States can be classified as follows:

1) Countries where voting consists of making a mark, circling a number or filling in a particular box in one or several places on the ballot paper (indicating either a party or a specific candidate, or candidates from a party list): Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia;

2) Countries where the voter first selects a card with the name of the party from the package they have received, then they indicate on it their choice of a candidate or candidates by making a mark or filling in a particular box: the Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Slovakia;

3) Countries where voting consists of making a mark next to the name of a political party, but the voter must or can also enter a number or surname of a specific candidate (or candidates): Italy, Lithuania;

4) Countries where voting consists of writing the choice on the ballot paper (name of party, number or surname of a particular candidate): Finland and Estonia;

5) Countries where voters do not make any mark or enter anything on the ballot paper – from the package they receive, they select a card with the name of the party and put it in the ballot box: France and Spain;

6) Countries where numbers indicating preferences are entered in boxes next to the surnames of candidates: Malta and Ireland;

7) Country with a complicated ballot paper system which we will not discuss for the sake of brevity: Sweden.


It is interesting to note that if the best practices adopted in some countries were harmonized, a system would be created in which citizens with disabilities could vote independently but could also choose for themselves how to vote.


European elections 2019Early voting is possible in 10 States, but disability is not included among the reasons for using the method. Postal voting is possible in Austria, Spain and Germany. Voting by mobile ballot box is possible in Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland, Sweden and Denmark.

In Germany and Poland, blind voters can obtain special envelopes with the Braille indication on the outside of the contained card, which they can deposit directly in the ballot box.


In conclusion, it is clear that, apart from the question of principle about the right to vote for people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, it would be extremely easy to solve the problems of accessibility and usability of electoral standards and practices compatible with the needs of persons with disabilities. Operational and intelligent solutions exist, it is only a question of putting them into practice, of making the progressive and optimistic vision prevail over the unconsidered, national-bureaucratic mentality, substantially retrospective and prejudicial, so as to allow disabled voters to participate actively in social life and politics.

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