EU poll shows we still have a long way to go on making voting accessible, equal and independent, says Ian Macrae.
For all I know, following the result of the referendum, you may still be partying like it’s 1999; you may have locked yourself in a darkened room in the hope that it will all just go back to how it was; or you may be heartily sick of the whole business.
Regardless of which of the above best describes you and your state of mind, I’d like to share with you my experience of voting on the evening of 23 June 2016. As usual, it was not a straightforward experience and it didn’t make me feel like an empowered or equal participant in proceedings. What it did do was give me pause to celebrate the memory of my uncle Peter.
I had learned from fellow blind would-be voters that each polling station was supposed to be equipped with an overlay designed to indicate with Braille letters r and l which box was which.
In the event, having arrived at the polling station and asked for the Braille template, the first thing that greeted my request was a laugh from one of the officials. Did they think I was trying to get one over on them? Did they actually think such a request was intrinsically funny? Or was it, as is more likely the case, the nervous reaction of someone caught on the hop?
It turned out that the presiding officer, the most senior person overseeing proceedings, did know what I was asking for and she duly produced a soft piece of plastic slightly smaller than my A5-sized ballot paper.
But in vain I looked for the Braille R and L symbols.
Next came the business of trying to get the overlay placed in the correct position over the ballot paper. This was only eventually achieved with a certain amount of rather fussy assistance from the Presiding Officer. The reason for my not being able to do this independently was that, in order to get it in the right place, you had to actually know or be able to see where the boxes were. Clearly I didn’t want to run the risk of putting my cross in the wrong box.
I had thought that the template would be the actual size of the ballot paper with two squares cut out to match the position of the boxes and with the Braille initial letters placed to indicate which was which. I’m not a massively practical person but that’s how I would have designed it.
So we came to the point where the boxes had to be identified. And I discovered that their position was actually indicated by cut-out print capital letters R and L.
I frequently identify myself as a blind child of blind parents. I also attended what we then called “blind school” where we were taught to read and write, but we were taught this exclusively through Braille. My Mother had no sight at all and so Braille was also her only means of written and read communication. My father had some sight but, because of the very poor nature of the education he received, was never shown how to read and write at all.
However – and this is where uncle Peter comes in – my Dad’s brother took it upon himself to teach me the print alphabet in capital letters and, I thought as I felt my way round the template on Thursday evening, what a good job he had.
There will have been blind people to whom this sort of template would have been as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard. Even for me the process of casting my vote was made to feel like an awkward, slightly embarrassing experience. Nor was I able to cast my vote in secret because the Presiding Officer giving me what assistance she could would have clearly seen which way I voted.
And yet as ever on these electoral occasions I counted myself relatively lucky. There will have been people who were not able to get into their polling station for reasons of poor access. There will have been deaf people who’d have looked in vain for a user of British Sign Language with whom they could communicate. There will probably have been people who struggled or failed to be able to reach the shelf in the polling booth.
No doubt all of these people would have made or found their own ad hoc arrangements or solutions. But surely it really now is time that our voting process was brought into the age of digital technology and made accessible and equal for all.
Not that any of this stopped me on getting back home from raising a glass to and thinking fondly of my uncle Peter.