Voting accessibility 2020: A mixed report card

7:40 pm on 29 October 2020

By Áine Kelly-Costello*

Analysis - Two elections ago in 2014, I picked up the phone to make two quick calls. The first was to register for Telephone Dictation Voting, and in the second, I, a blind New Zealander, cast my very first Election vote.

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File image. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Telephone Dictation Voting (TDV) had been newly introduced in New Zealand that year as an option for voters who were blind, had low vision or could not not physically mark a ballot paper independently. At the time, that convenient and almost secret voting process was as new to me as the whole shebang of voting itself.

But there's nothing quite like removing that access to remind you what you're missing. This year, living overseas, I voted from Norway. Fortunately, I could do that with a trusted, non-judgmental family member because, as it turned out, telephone dictation voting wasn't an option.

The Electoral Regulations 1996 prevent otherwise eligible voters who are living overseas from using TDV, unless, ironically enough, they live in a remote overseas location where they can't download voting papers or receive them by post or fax (yes, fax).

Compounding the irony, regulations were changed speedily indeed to allow those in managed isolation and quarantine to vote using TDV this year. That change is a good example of what was originally an accessibility service serving a wider purpose. It also tells me there's no excuses not to update those regulations before the next elections so that otherwise eligible Kiwis living anywhere overseas retain our right to an (almost) secret vote.

Back home, I wanted to find out how other disabled voters, and whānau where relevant, fared. Here's what was good, and what still needs improvement based on the feedback from more than 50 people.

The good

Blind voters who opted to vote via TDV generally gave the service glowing reviews. They described a "really excellent", "liberating", "convenient", "empowering", "thorough", "clearly described", "easy" and "hassle-free" experience.

On the physical access front, The Electoral Commission website this year had a filter which allowed you to search for accessible locations, and if you opened the lists of voting places, icons indicated whether or not they were deemed to have independent access for wheelchair users. Many voters managed to locate info on accessible venues online.

In the words of one satisfied voter: "Newtown pop up next to New World. Flat access, plenty of room for a chair or scooter and the accessible booth was at the easiest location. The vote receptacles were at a height that could be reached easily. Top marks".

Multiple deaf people and people with learning disabilities have reported good access to voting information in advance, which included New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) interpretation of the leaders debates, NZSL access to referendum information, availability of example ballot papers, and election information in Easyread format. Though far from a universal experience, many deaf voters reported smooth or fairly smooth communication flows throughout the voting process itself

Three deaf voters separately reported that NZSL access of some form, whether through an interpreter or a new trial of remote interpreter access, made communication much smoother than it would have been. One, initially struggling to understand the voting officer when asked for his full name, then saw that the staff member serving his wife knew some New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).

"This officer quickly signed what my officer was saying and then the process flowed smoothly," he said. "This shows that having basic NZSL makes a huge difference in the voting experience for deaf people."

Needs improvement

In several areas, the voting experience was contingent on the training (or perhaps recall) of whoever the voting worker at hand happened to be. The most problematic issue here came down to misunderstandings around the rules regarding how voters are required to identify themselves. One mother I talked to, whose daughter would not be able to communicate her name on demand, reported a positive experience in which doing that wasn't necessary to vote, while other parents who went to vote with whānau members with limited communication found themselves turned away from the booths. A contingent jointly wrote to the minister for disability issues on this, who replied promptly to say this should not have happened and that the electoral officer trainers would get better instruction next time.

Three deaf voters, though not turned away, also separately faced a similar issue, being asked to speak their name aloud, sometimes repeatedly. Others reported that their voting worker made minimal effort to communicate accessibly, for instance a failure to switch to writing when lipreading was not possible. One voter suggested that voting locations should all be equipped with written instructions, preferably accompanied by images, in future.

TDV, for all its praise, didn't get a perfect report card either. Two of 15 people reported being read out incomplete information. One was read only the numbers rather than the full text of the referendum questions, while the other missed out on the parties of her local candidates and inadvertently sent her local vote to an unintended candidate as a result. This voter said she would ask for clarification in future, but didn't do that this time because "it all seemed so official".

Two of four blind voters I spoke to who opted to vote onsite with assistance found the staff welcoming and helpful, but the other two, though not challenged directly, got the impression that theirs were uncertain about the rules.

Physical access information, though available elsewhere, was not printed on the maps showing voting locations. Also, it appears that each electorate wasn't required to have an accessible voting location available for the duration of the advance voting period. One Rangitikei voter who uses a wheelchair found that out the hard way when he turned up to the only early voting location listed on the map at the time, only to be greeted with stairs.

Meanwhile, another wheelchair user turned up to vote at his local library in Hutt south where he has voted accessibly in the past, discovered that for Covid-19 safety reasons the voting booths had moved upstairs. He also observed a number of older voters, accompanied by their adult children, who entered the library and then turned around when they spotted the stairs.

While reportedly plenty of voting places had at least one booth where a seated vote was possible, none such booth arrived at the North Shore care home from which 98-year-old Jean cast her vote. Balancing a walking frame and voting simultaneously wasn't possible, so Jean had to hold on to the potentially wobbly cardboard booth, leaving her feeling anxious and at risk of a fall, according to her granddaughter.

"Nobody said anything about it because when you get to this age, you don't complain," Jean observed. It'll be important to determine the scope of this problem and ensure seated voting is consistently available for voting visits in future elections.

In conclusion

The Electoral Commission would do well to continue collaborating with disabled voters, as we tend to be the experts on what would improve our voting experiences, across general and local elections. Other suggestions I've seen include:

  • Make Telephone Dictation Voting available for local elections (logistically challenging? Probably. Worth it? Definitely)
  • Extend the remote interpreting trial next time and advertise it better, and/or allow Deaf people to use their own phones to video call an interpreter
  • Employ a permanent Commission staff member whose exclusive focus is disability access to election processes
  • Trial online voting (if we can enrol and update details online, the system must be fairly secure already)

The Electoral Commission had a worthy goal under its Disability strategy: "That by the year 2020, all eligible New Zealanders, regardless of disability, are able to fully participate in parliamentary elections".

We're not there yet, but we're on a promising track.

* Áine Kelly-Costello is a journalist and campaigner from Aotearoa completing her masters from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

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