Disenfranchised and disillusioned: Little progress made for voters with disabilities
Despite suggestions to make voting more accessible, people with disabilities still face barriers: Megan Linton
NOTE: CBC has included a response by Elections Canada, received after the original piece's publication, below.
Across the province, electoral signs dominate the advertising space — benches in blue, large billboards in orange, flags in red and lawn signs the four colours of the electoral rainbow. The impact of the election sprint in Manitoba can be seen across the province, beyond the inundation of electoral advertisements.
Brian Pallister's early election call has raised alarm bells across Manitoba, and has widely been understood as a response to the one percentage point PST decrease that came into effect early this summer.
However, an important aspect that is critical to understanding the desire for the early election is the impact of the combined federal and provincial elections.
The Manitoba election takes place Sept. 10, more than a year prior to the fixed date legislation, and only 41 days before the Oct. 21 federal election. The joint forces of the provincial and federal election mean that parties can rely on the narratives of their federal counterparts.
This tactic is not only unfair but is additionally problematic for voters with disabilities — people with a full right to vote, but who are continually disenfranchised by the democratic system and electoral process.
Prior to the 2015 federal election, Elections Canada created an advisory group for disability issues, which released a list of priorities for federal elections. Two of the 11 recommendations were around voting clarity and including photos of candidates at the polling station and on ballots.
Despite the advisory group's 2016 report, and its work prior to the 2015 election, nothing has changed.
Adding images to ballots increases the accessibility of the ballot substantially and is of particular importance for people living with intellectual disabilities, people with learning disabilities, neurodivergent people, people with brain injuries, and people with cognitive disabilities.
Unsurprisingly, when Elections Manitoba released its accessibility report for the upcoming election, there was no commitment or comment on the recurring demand for the disability community to include candidate photos.
This is particularly important in the upcoming elections because of the sheer density of candidates and advertisements, and because the lack of differentiation between the federal and provincial parties can, and will, lead to confusion at the polls. Including photos of candidates at polling stations is a cost-effective and empowering addition to the accessibility of polls.
For many voters this information could be a pivotal accessibility feature that would not only allow them to cast a ballot, but to leave the polls feeling empowered, understood and feeling confident that they voted for the person they intended to vote for.
The failure of both Elections Canada and Election Manitoba to comply with the disability issues advisory is devastating in this election season.
Little support for voters with disabilities
Back-to-back failure is not only disappointing but ultimately further disenfranchises an already-disenfranchised population. Confusing voters on who to vote for is malicious, and the joint failure of the elections organizations feels deliberate. Of the 11 recommendations of the committee, none received support from Elections Canada, resulting in us heading into an election season being unsupported at the polls.
People with disabilities are one of the groups with the lowest voter turnout, voter registration, and representation at the polls. Despite the Accessible Canada Act and the Accessibility for Manitobans Act, the concentration of, and support for, disabled voters remains low. People with disabilities were among the last group to receive the right to vote, finally gaining our full right to vote in 1993.
The consistent ignorance and dismissal of voting rights for disabled voters is critical. Across Manitoba the Disability Matters Vote campaign has had significant support.
Along with People First Manitoba's pop-up voting practice stations, disability advocates and organizations are working tirelessly to ensure that disability issues are brought to the polls, and that disabled voters are able to actively participate in democracy. However, it is the responsibility of Elections Canada and Elections Manitoba to, as they say, ensure "that Canadians can exercise their democratic rights to vote."
Elections Canada and Elections Manitoba have failed voters this election season. Moreover, the unnecessarily early election creates additional barriers and confusion that, paired with the lack of action by the election organizations, continues the disenfranchisement of disabled voters in a cruel, usual way.
We are lucky in Manitoba to have committed disability advocates and service organizations willing to support voters. However, we should not continue to have to rely on volunteer work to supplement the tangible action that is required to be able to fully guarantee the franchise to the 13.7 per cent of Canadians who live with disabilities.
Elections Canada's response:
The Advisory Group for Disability Issues (AGDI) did, indeed, share a list of 11 priorities related to election accessibility. These priorities must not be confused with the Advisory Group's contributions to the Chief Electoral Officer's (CEO) recommendations to Parliament (more on this below). Elections Canada has taken concrete action on more than half of these 11 items, including: making significant improvements to how election workers are trained, and to the instructions they are provided for identifying accessible polling places; significantly expanding the suite of digital and print-based information products for electors with disabilities; organizing a briefing between the AGDI and political parties to provide feedback on accessibility considerations for their future campaigns; allowing for personal use of mobile applications that gives an audible verification for an elector's marked ballot and changing the design of the ballot to make this easier; and expanding the accessibility testing of Elections Canada's print products and its website.
Rightly, the author notes that AGDI's suggestion to include photographs of candidates to the ballots will not be in place for the 2019 election. What is not made clear, however, is the fact that such a change would not simply be an administrative decision for Elections Canada to take, but would require amendments to the Canada Elections Act. In his consultations with disability communities, the CEO has been consistent in encouraging those interested in including photos on ballots to lobby Parliamentarians, who, unlike Elections Canada, have a mandate to enact such a change. It is worth noting, too, that Elections Canada engaged in broad consultations with disability communities to redesign the ballot for 2019. Ballots are now not only more readable but are more optimized for optical character recognition by screen readers. Unlike photos on ballots, these formatting changes did not require legislative approval to implement.
As noted above, the article seems to conflate AGDI's 11 priorities with the contributions it made informing and shaping the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations to Parliament following the 2015 federal election. Prior to the tabling of these recommendations, Elections Canada consulted AGDI in order to ensure that its concerns were well reflected in the CEO's list of recommendations. The end result was a suite of 14 recommendations developed or amended on the specific advice of the advisory group. Of these, ten recommendations were adopted by Parliament, leading to concrete changes for the 2019 election. These include: allowing election officers to assist electors at the polls who have mental or intellectual disability, as well as physical ones; facilitating payment of a candidate's expenses related to either the candidate's disability, or care by the candidate of a person with a disability; enhance the vouching process, including allowing for vouching of multiple electors in long term care facilities and group homes; removing the prohibition of the use of the Voter Information Card as an acceptable proof of address; and replacing, in the Canada Elections Act references to "level access" with "accessible", effectively expanding the standard of service to account for electors with accessibility issues beyond those requiring level-access alone.
It is essential that Canadians have accurate information about the measures in place to reduce barriers to the electoral process for Canadians with disabilities. As written, this article both understates the contributions made by the Advisory Group for Disability Issues, but also risks mischaracterizing the effect of those contributions on the significant improvements to the electoral process that are in place for the 2019 election, and that Elections Canada continues to work to develop and implement, where applicable under its mandate. This is significant as it may discourage voters with disabilities from participating in the next election.
- An earlier version of this opinion piece said "Despite the advisory group's 2016 report, and its work prior to the 2015 election, nothing has changed." This has been revised to say "Despite the advisory group's 2016 report, and its work prior to the 2015 election, little has changed," and a response from Elections Canada to the original piece has been added.Sep 07, 2019 5:31 PM CT