When Madeline went to vote in the Dominican Republic’s presidential election last May, she needed help to get through the door with her wheelchair because the ramps were poorly constructed at the polling place.
She was carried to the second floor only to learn that she was not at the correct polling location and there would be more rooms and stairs to navigate.
When she finally did reach her polling booth, it was too high for her to mark her ballot in secret. She was told to hold the ballot in her lap to vote. After she marked her ballot, she was asked for which party she voted.
Despite all of these obstacles, she still believes this experience was better than the treatment she received in the last election.
Madeline is not alone in facing barriers while exercising her right to vote. People with disabilities from around the world are historically disenfranchised from participation in elections and politics. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) provides support to election management bodies (EMBs) and civil society organizations to make the political process more inclusive.
As Madeline recounts, there is still much to be done in the Dominican Republic; however, through poll worker training, inclusive voter education and identifying accessible electoral materials, elections will become more accessible for all voters. As Madeline recounts, there is still much to be done in the Dominican Republic; however, through poll worker training, inclusive voter education and identifying accessible electoral materials, elections will become more accessible for all voters.
To ensure voters like Madeline have a more accessible experience on Election Day, IFES has developed a series of effective approaches through its experience working with EMBs and DPOs. These approaches can be applied to countries throughout ASEAN.
Leverage International Standards
In 2011, The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that at least 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability. However, the estimates of many individual governments are much lower. As a result, devoting time and resources to election access is often a low priority. When working with an EMB, it is helpful to point out the WHO’s 15 percent estimate and to leverage regional and international commitments, such as the rights provided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). EMBs are often not involved in negations related to this treaty, so they are sometimes not aware of their responsibilities under Article 29 on political and public life.
Civic education can teach EMB officials and DPOs about what rights and duties come with being a citizen of a country. Knowing the role of government, citizens and relevant laws can empower an individual to play a more active role in shaping their society. In Georgia, IFES designed a civics course with a university that highlights the rights of all citizens, including those with disabilities. A student who went through the course said, “We don’t see persons with disabilities. Before we hadn’t thought about these people, now we see they deserve the same social rights, rights to education and the electoral process. We shouldn’t have a society where people are separated.”
As a result, students from this civic education class recorded an audio copy of their textbook Democracy and Citizenship. They are now promoting access to university-level civic education for students with visual disabilities and distributing CDs of the book to youth with visual impairments.
Further, with knowledge of rights and responsibilities, DPOs and EMBs are better equipped to work together to improve access. The years before an election are an extremely valuable time to prepare and plan. For example, election laws have a large impact on who is and is not allowed to vote. However, election laws must be reviewed well in advance of an election so there is enough time to change any discriminatory clauses. In Egypt, IFES conducted a review of the election law and identified several areas that could exclude voters with disabilities. A local civil society organization then mobilized a voter education campaign which resulted in the Egyptian Human Rights Council establishing a Disability Committee, providing a unique opportunity to enforce the rights of persons with disabilities. People with and without disabilities that have a solid background in civics are well placed to conduct such campaigns.
Voter Education and Accessibility
Voter education materials can accomplish several tasks at once by encouraging people with disabilities to vote and building awareness of the rights of citizens with disabilities among the public. Campaigns can sometimes be targeted to one group of people, such as the blind. For example, tactile ballot guides are a great way to ensure the secrecy of the vote, but they must be provided in conjunction with a voter education campaign, and, as described below, training for election officials, describing how to use the guide and what to expect at the polls.
For video campaigns targeted to the entire population, sign language interpretation must be included. This video from Guatemala is an example of how to create a message for voters that includes those with hearing impairments. Voter education materials should be distributed in multiple formats, such as posters, brochures and video to ensure all communities are reached. An example of a poster reminding voters with disabilities to bring their ID card with them on Election Day can be found below.
Developing accessible voter registration processes and identifying accessible locations is another way to make elections more inclusive. In Nepal, IFES produced the first-ever braille voter registration education materials, which described how to register and the voting rights of persons with disabilities.
Physical access remains a problem in many polling stations. In Armenia, IFES and a DPO worked together to identify the polling stations where a majority of voters who use wheelchairs lived. From there, ramps were built and a video campaign was released to let voters know their polling station was now accessible and to highlight that more ramps still need to be built.
Poll Worker Training
Reaching out to citizens with disabilities by developing inclusive voter education and building ramps at polling stations will help make elections more accessible. However, to ensure Election Day goes smoothly, poll workers must be well trained. Even if a country has inclusive laws, if a poll worker is not properly trained, these laws might not be implemented. For example, the CRPD says that if a voter needs assistance at the ballot box, they can select an assistant of their own choosing. However, some poll workers do not know this and insist on only allowing a poll worker to help the voter.
Poll workers must also be trained on how to administer the tactile ballot guide. IFES has worked in countries where laws are very inclusive, but as a result of poor training of poll workers, voters with disabilities are excluded. To remedy this, IFES has produced an extra chapter for poll worker training manuals describing how to administer the vote to persons with disabilities.
Throughout ASEAN, AGENDA’s election access observations help determine if poll workers in the region have been properly trained. As described later in this newsletter, AGENDA observers found that 70% of poll workers in Jakarta’s gubernatorial election last month did not explain the tactile ballot guide to blind voters. AGENDA can now use this data to develop recommendations for the General Election Committee on how to make future elections more accessible.
In addition to ensuring that voter education and polling centers are accessible, the announcement of election results should be done in an accessible format. In Guatemala, a sign language interpreter provided simultaneous translation of the results so that deaf viewers received the results at the same time as other citizens.
After the election, it is important to follow up with candidates who won and hold them accountable for campaign promises and adoption inclusive policies. DPOs in Guatemala hosted a forum with key government ministries after the election to hold them accountable for campaign pledges on inclusive policies. DPOs can also work with political parties to educate them on how to provide materials in accessible formats and encourage recruitment of candidates with disabilities.
In order to shape decisions that affect their lives, all citizens must be educated on their rights and actively participate in political life. These examples illustrate how different countries have worked to make their elections more accessible. AGENDA provides an opportunity for countries from across the Southeast Asian region to share common challenges and lessons learned. The upcoming conference in November will be a venue where EMBs and DPOs can work together to develop frameworks for including persons with disabilities in elections. When working together, the region has the potential to be a leader in election access.