Wales council elections: Blind voters blast lack of independence

By Kate Morgan
BBC Wales insights correspondent

  • Published
Media caption,
Blind voters say there is "no excuse... other than laziness" for a lack of support at polling stations

Blind and partially sighted people need to be included in elections and supported to vote independently, campaigners have said.

Lela Patterson, 25, who has been blind since birth, said she was "fed up" and unsure how she will be able to vote.

"We can't join in because the information isn't accessible to us and that's just not fair," she said.

The Welsh government said it was committed to making participating in elections "accessible and convenient".

Clutching a political party leaflet as we chatted in a park near her home in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, the college student described the problem.

"It is print so I can't feel anything on it. It's not Braille, there's no tactile pictures, I'm not sure there's pictures in this," she added.

The disability activist said she had raised the issue previously with candidates on the doorstep, but nothing had changed.

"It makes you feel kind of sad because, you know, again if you can't see what's on the leaflet you don't know what's on there... it's really excluding to people like me," she said.

Image caption,
Voters go to the polls to elect 1,234 councillors in Wales on Thursday

She also has concerns about election day, from how she would travel to her polling station to how she would know what box she was ticking.

It is a familiar problem for Dan Thomas from Cardiff who said there was "no privacy, no secrecy and no independence" for him in the current system.

The campaigner said he had never been able to vote alone, instead relying on family or friends and, on occasions, staff at the polling station.

"It's a basic human right yet, as far as I'm concerned, it has been denied to me," he said.

Currently, it is a legal requirement to have a tactile voting device at every polling station.

The Electoral Commission website states it would allow a blind or partially sighted person to mark the ballot paper themselves, once it has been read out by a companion.

But the 34-year-old said "it isn't fit for purpose".

Image caption,
Dan Thomas: "It's a basic human right yet... it has been denied to me"

"It's so basic so why can't I do it, why in 2022… I can take care of my own banking, I can take care of my own shopping, why do I need someone to tick a box for me? Why can't we do this?" he added.

He has been campaigning on the issue for a number of years and working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to call for change.

"You think I could do something as simple as choose the people who are going to make decisions over my life in an inclusive and accessible manner," he said.

RNIB Cymru said 111,000 people across Wales were living with sight loss and that figure would only increase.

"These changes need to be made straight away or we risk ostracising a large section of society," the charity said.

It has produced a guide on how to vote and called on the Welsh government to be more ambitious.

The Electoral Commission, an independent body which oversees elections and promotes public confidence, said it had made "a number of recommendations that would further increase accessibility".

It has also called on political parties to publish more accessible versions of campaign material.

The Welsh government said it was "working with individuals and expert organisations to address problems currently faced by voters and to actively remove barriers to participation".

It said an example of its recent work to modernise elections had been to require all returning officers to "publish all local government election notes electronically, which helps people using screen readers".

What do the political parties say?

The Welsh Conservatives said the comments were "dispiriting", adding: "Anyone eligible for a vote should be able to access it."

Constitution spokesman Darren Millar said if the current tactile voting devices were not fit for purpose, then it was "essential that we explore adaptations and alternatives".

Plaid Cymru said there should be no barriers to participation which was why the party made its election manifesto accessible on screen readers, in large font and created an audio version.

"Wales needs a national strategy to ensure co-ordinated and equitable access to services and this must be developed through working with blind and partially sighted people," it added.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats said they would like to see a Braille ballot introduced.

"It would be sent as a postal vote, or polling stations would keep a number of Braille ballots to provide, depending on how many registered voters in that polling district have requested one," it said.

Welsh Labour has been asked to comment.