New voting technology to aid disabled

Elections Ontario is promoting some new technology that will allow people with disabilities to vote independently.
Voters with visual impairments can use a keypad equipped with Braille to cast their ballot. (Nathan Swinn/CBC)

Elections Ontario is promoting some new technology that will allow people with disabilities to vote independently.

It will be the first time the technology will be widely available to Ontario voters, said Greg Essensa, Ontario's Chief Electoral Officer.

The voting tools, which aid individuals with mobility and visual challenges, include a Braille key pad, a "sip and puff" straw for those who don't have the use of their hands, and foot pedals. Voters can don a headset which will talk them through how to cast their votes using the equipment.

Essensa said there are hundreds of thousands of Ontarians that could be helped with the voting technology. The government amended legislation in 2010 mandating that Elections Ontario provide the service.

"They can actually come and vote completely secretly and independently — no differently than any other elector — and maintain a paper ballot record of how they voted," Essensa said.

In the past, people with disabilities have had to rely on others to help them cast their vote, he said.

The equipment will only be available in 147 returning offices across the province for 15 days at the start of the advanced voting period. With 7,700 polling stations, Essensa said it's too costly to put the technology in every location on election day.

"We don't have the capacity to have that many pieces of equipment in the field on that one day," he said.

But Essensa indicated that there are more ways to vote than ever and the voting period is longer than in past elections.

The writ drops on Sept. 7 and voters can cast a ballot at a returning office, starting Sept. 8 between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., he said. Voters can also request that a ballot be mailed to their home to complete.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Canadian Paraplegic Association helped pilot the project and the equipment was tested during two 2009 by-elections.

The cost of the new services was estimated to be about $500,000 and the technology will allow returning offices to track how many people use the technology, Essensa said.

Elections Ontario will be reporting back to the legislature in 2013 on the possibility of adding online voting to the list of ways to cast a ballot.