Northern Ireland

General election 2019: Blind voters urge online fix to privacy problem

Joe Kenny
Image caption Joe Kenny has called for an online system so he can vote in private

Total privacy when voting is something most people will take for granted when they go to their polling station in the general election on Thursday.

But not 42-year-old Joe Kenny.

The Northern Ireland man has voted in every election since he was 18 - but has never cast his ballot in private.

That is because he is blind and requires assistance to mark his ballot paper. But he has said it is "high time" an online system was introduced for people with visual impairments.

Mr Kenny, along with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Northern Ireland, are campaigning for electoral officials and representatives to look at online changes so voting is fair and accessible to blind and partially-sighted people.

He told BBC NI's Good Morning Ulster that most people vote and walk away "safe in the knowledge that you and you alone know who you have marked on that paper".

"I, and other blind people, don't have that luxury."

When Mr Kenny goes to vote, he requires the help of staff at the polling station who'll help him mark his ballot paper.

"Somebody will have to show me the box or call out the list of candidates and which box that refers to.

"Then I have to get assistance to find the box on the paper and physically make the mark," he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Joe Kenny said being blind means he gets no privacy when casting his vote

It is a process that makes him feel like voting is "out of my control".

According to Mr Kenny, two voting aids for partially-sighted people - a large-print ballot paper and a tactile voting device, which fits over the ballot - do not eliminate the need for assistance.

Likewise, a postal vote still requires Mr Kenny to mark a ballot paper with someone's guidance

'Do most things online'

Instead, Mr Kenny is calling for an online solution.

"We're looking at a print mark on print paper in a sight-orientated environment - it's now time we embraced an online system of voting. It must be possible.

"I know people will say there's danger of data security or hacking or identity theft, but I can bank online, I can do most anything online nowadays.

"I don't believe that a system doesn't exist that wouldn't be secure enough for people to vote."

Image copyright RNIB
Image caption Tactile voting cards are one of the aids available to blind and partially-sighted people at polling stations

He added that the current system could put blind or partially-sighted people off voting altogether.

"You're giving away your privacy and your independence. Perhaps you feel like you can't do it, or maybe you don't want to do it or maybe it just seems like too much of a job to do from where you are."

Dr Jackie Witherow, a director from the RNIB NI, said it was "simply not acceptable that people can leave their polling station unsure whether they've correctly voted for the candidate of their choice or feel obliged to ask someone else for help".

"We want the next Parliament to urgently explore alternatives such as secure digital options," she added.

Meanwhile, Mr Kenny is urging people - whether partially sighted or not - to join the campaign.

"I would ask public representatives and the electoral office to talk to us, talk to people with disabilities, talk to people like the RNIB to find out what can be done."

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