Voting: not a blind ballot for everyone

25 May 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 May 2017

Joe Kenny and his children
Joe Kenny and his children

The secret electoral ballot is a right some exercise zealously and others waive – but a few people don’t have a choice. Joe Kenny explains.

Why can’t I vote by myself?

I’ve been eligible to vote for 21 years now but have yet to do so independently or in secret.

Every single time I’ve invoked my democratic right at the ballot box at least one other person, if not more, has known who I voted for, what political party I feel represents me and, from that, they’ve probably formed all sorts of other opinions about me as a result. This is Northern Ireland after all!

Why is this? Because I’m blind and the electoral system that we have still doesn’t award blind or partially sighted people the same standards of privacy and confidentiality as everyone else. It’s good old, plain and simple inequality. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find a better example of inequality for people with a disability than with what should be their most fundamental right as citizens: taking part in the democratic process.

Some will say, “But people are willing to help you cast your vote either on polling day or by postal or proxy,” or “The Returning Officer in a polling station can assist and is glad to do so,” or ask, “Is it really such a big deal if your partner/parent/friend gives you a hand making your mark in the right box?”

I hear what they’re saying. In writing this piece I definitely do not want to insult or offend those who have helped me over the years to have my say on the political future of our people - but that isn’t the point. Why can’t I, and others who cannot see fully, just vote by ourselves?

It isn’t a complicated thing, it’s only stating your preference from a list of options, the sort of thing we do all the time in everyday life in some form or another.


Perhaps if they offered the facility to vote online then this overlooked inequality would be well on the way to being addressed. I’m no expert but even I know there are all sorts of online software and systems that can do exactly what the electoral process would require.  Yes, I know the main counter argument is one of data security and protecting against identity theft, but are we really supposed to accept that in 2017 there are no systems and applications that are adequate? If my memory serves me correctly, weren’t we able to complete our 2011 census form online?

I can leave home in the morning, make purchases and information transactions throughout the day, and return in the evening having carried no physical cash or paperwork whatsoever.  We’ve got GPS to find ourselves, contactless payment, apps for almost everything - but the process of casting your democratic vote by anything other than pencil and paper – and, of course, sight - elude us still to this day.

Now I should acknowledge that the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland does offer assistance.  You can ask to be guided within a polling station, they will provide additional lighting in booths and they do offer a template-selector device that has braille numbers indicating each box on the paper.  This is appreciated by many but it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the root problem: using printed text on paper as the only method of communication.

Think about it - depending on the type of election, you might have to know each candidates number of preference, out of a list of maybe 20. If you’re sighted, you can just glance down the list and then copy the number in to the box. I have to ask someone to read the list to me then footer about with the braille template hoping that the paper is in the right way round and not back to front or upside down, and what about those times when the special assistance isn’t there for what ever reason..? You get the picture.


Does it matter? Well, it matters as much as anything else does.  We’re told that we’re born in to a democratic society. Our vote is our voice and, if you don’t like something, then vote to change it. So yeah, I reckon it matters quite a bit.

I’ve got off my backside and gone out to cast my vote on every single polling day since I was 18.  I believe in the power of the people and that your vote is yours to do with as you see fit.

A thought does occur to me though; I’ve relied on other people to assist me in voting for years.  I’m assuming they were honest with me and either gave me the right information or made the mark in the right box for me.  Maybe they didn’t.  Maybe I’ve been voting for a completely different MP or MLA all these years.  Maybe I have been voting for something I absolutely disagree with; maybe Brexit is my fault!

I’m pretty sure that is not the case but you get my point.

A sighted person walks in to their polling station, takes their ballot paper to the booth and makes their mark on the page before dropping the paper in to the ballot box. They then leave the polling station confident in the knowledge that they went in there to vote for a particular candidate and that’s what they did.

We can’t. And I really don’t see where the political will or wind of change is going to come from, any time soon.

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