There’s just a few weeks to go before the Scottish Government closes its consultation on Electoral Reform of local and Scottish Parliament elections.
The entire consultation is an interesting exercise for those who are into voting and elections and inherent in it is the potential to modernise these processes in Scotland, especially with the introduction of technology to the voting booth.
From the LDAS point of view there are two things to note about the consultation.
The first is that in addition to questions about the voting process and increasing voter participation, it is also concerned with encouraging citizens to stand for election, especially those from underrepresented groups.
Joe FitzPatrick, Minister for Parliamentary Business explained the Scottish Government “want to hear about new ways to break down the barriers to standing for election which clearly exist.”
Any new initiatives would follow existing efforts to address this deficit such as the setup of the Access to Elected Office fund which was aimed at encouraging more disabled people to stand as councillors in last year’s local elections.
Mr FitzPatrick has described the fund as ‘highly successful’ with fifteen candidates from a wide range of parties and from across Scotland who accessed the fund being elected and added, “We are committed to running this Fund in the future, but there is much more that could be done.”
This commitment is an exciting one that opens up possibilities to people with learning disabilities who have political ambitions, especially now that we have a successful precedent in the former town mayor of Selby, Gavin Harding, who served as town mayor and councillor and is still an active political figure today.
The second point is that the consultation touches only slightly on an issue that is more fundamental for people with learning disabilities.
Because, while the objective of the consultation is greater ‘participation’ in the whole election process, what it doesn’t specifically address is the very thing that would immediately improve the voter experience for people with learning disabilities.
There is scope to discuss accessibility to polling stations in addition to the support that already exists such as proxy and postal voting and so on and such provisions are welcome but for people with learning disabilities who want to vote what they need is more accessible ballots.
It’s a pity the consultation doesn’t give more attention to what could be done to change ballots beyond rearranging the way candidates are listed and whether or not their addresses should be included, although there is nothing to stop respondents putting forward their ideas in the open ended questions about ‘what else’ can be suggested.
But if we are being serious about making voting more accessible for all groups, including people with learning disabilities, then a much deeper conversation has to be had about the difficulties they face currently and how those different needs can be addressed in order to support them to participate fully in the voting process.
So here are the top 3 suggestions that could make a real difference for people with learning disabilities when it comes to voting in local and Scottish elections, courtesy of the LDAS Stronger Together accessible politics groups who have been working through the consultation:
- Easy Read the ballots with symbols, pictures and colour to allow voters with learning disabilities to properly identify the content and follow the proper instructions in order to cast their votes, and this applies to electronic ballots as well. The consensus so far from the groups has been to include pictures of the party leaders beside the names of candidates as a more identifiable method than party names.
- Identification of some kind that would mark voters with learning disabilities out discretely as requiring additional support to cast their vote would be a welcome addition to the polling card, or even something separate from it along the lines of the health passport. This would take the onus off of the individual to have to seek or ask for help and means it can be offered instead by polling station staff forming the basis of a more inclusive voting experience.
- Training for the polling station staff who will provide the support to voters with learning disabilities turning up to vote. The experiences of many of the Stronger Together group members include feeling a lack of understanding from others when they turn up to vote, a sense of vulnerability to comments made by canvassers, and an anxiety at having to remember the procedure of voting. On top of this there is worry and confusion over the different voting systems used in each election, in particular the Single Transferable Voting system for local elections that even polling station staff seem to be confused about, according to some of the feedback the groups have been giving.
Certainly those who come to the LDAS Stronger Together accessible politics groups are the individuals keen to be involved in the political process and to cast their votes but, even for the enthusiasts, if you have learning disabilities the voting process takes a lot of preparation, effort and dedication and really does requires the right kind of support. So where better to start than the ballot box.