Friday, 25 June 2010

Scope polling report - the wrong solution to a real problem

The charity Scope has called for online and text voting to allow people with disabilities access to voting. Their report highlights the fact that far too many polling stations are still inaccessible to many would be voters.

Scope has been running reports on the accessibility of voting for many general elections now and have rightly garnered a lot of praise for their work in this area. But whilst their aims are exactly right and the concerns they raise very worrying, their preferred solution would cause far more problems than it solves.

Too many polling stations in the UK are still in buildings which are not fully accessible. Even worse are temporary structures such as caravans which can be impossible to access if you have any mobility impairment. The solution - enable the voter to cast their ballot outside - is discriminatory and puts a lot of people off.

Some will suggest that the number of people involved is relatively small. In fact I don't think it is, but even so we should adopt the principle that every elector should have equal access to cast their ballot and that all reasonable means should be taken to help them do so.

So why not internet or text voting?

Both have been extensively trialled in the UK. But both were hugely expensive and, most importantly, did not raise turnout. Indeed, the hard evidence is that turnout actually dropped with 'e-enabled' voting in many areas. Security experts have raised the issue that they might be subject to fraud which, unlike with paper based ballots, could be impossible to trace or correct. And whilst few technical errors were found in the online voting trials, the text voting system was cumbersome and left many voters unsure as to whether their vote had counted or not.

I think that internet or text voting would raise more problems than they solve and would do little if anything to boost turnout. I think that they should be laid to rest, at least for the next ten years.

But that does not mean that Scope do not have a point and I am certain that action needs to be taken. I would like to see a requirement that all polling stations be fully accessible. The current 'all reasonable steps' clause is a wimp out. To help returning officers, they should have the power to use any public building and guidance on using private premises should be made clearer. There will still be some areas where problems remain and the danger is that returning officers will simply offer fewer polling places as a result - making the ballot more inaccessible to many.

My solution - consider allowing electors to cast their ballot in another polling station within the same ward or constituency where their designated polling station is not fully accessible. There would be no need for a polling station to hold different types of ballot paper and there could be a second ballot box for 'out of polling district' ballot papers.

This provision would only be needed where a polling place is not completely accessible and my experience tells me that this tends to be in remote areas where there is more than one polling station for the ward concerned. If there is a ward with only one station and that is inaccessible then I would suggest the returning officer is not trying hard enough.

In such cases, poll cards could be printed to indicate that the polling station is not fully accessible and the address of the nearest accessible station could be given as an alternative.

Thanks to Mark Pack for highlighting the report.

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