The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives Canadian citizens the right to vote. But for many Canadians living with sight loss, voting isn’t as simple as walking into a voting booth and checking a name on the ballot. It’s an inaccessible process that involves little to no secrecy, and numerous barriers.
In recognition of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3, CNIB is raising awareness of the inaccessible voting process in Canada and changes that the sight loss community has been advocating for.
“It’s 2020, we’re living in a digital age, but we’re still relying on lead pencils and paper ballots for the most fundamental right of a free society,” explains Lui Greco, an advocate living with sight loss. “The legislation and voting process in this country needs to keep pace with technology and federal accessibility legislation to enable everyone to cast their ballot in a way that works for them.”
As early as 1874, Canadians who are blind or partially sighted have had the right to vote. However, the only option available was to have the deputy returning officer mark their ballot for them, in the presence of sworn agents of the candidates – far from a secret vote.
Amendments were made to the Dominion Elections Act in 1930 to allow Canadians living with sight loss to bring a trusted friend or relative to the polling location with them to assist with marking their ballot.
After decades of advocacy efforts, Elections Canada now offers tactile templates and magnifiers, but Canadians with sight loss still face barriers that prevent them from voting independently and validating their ballot.
"The accessibility of elections in Canada has come a long way since 1874, but there is still so much work to be done," says Thomas Simpson, CNIB's Director of Public Affairs and Advocacy. "Until Canadians living with sight loss can independently cast and verify their vote, Canada is not truly accessible."
Technology can level the playing field for voters who are blind or partially sighted. In the 2019 federal election, some voters cast their ballots independently with a magnifying device behind the voting screen, while others used artificial intelligence applications on their smartphones. However, this was not widely used because there were no official policies and procedures in place, and some voters – especially seniors – did not have access to smart devices with artificial intelligence.
Several jurisdictions in Canada already use electronic voting tabulators with audio features that read the list of candidates and help electors cast and verify their vote independently. Telephone voting is also an option in British Columbia and Australia.
"CNIB has put forward a number of recommendations to Members of Parliament and Elections Canada, including the use of telephone voting and electronic voting tabulators with audio output," said Simpson. "We'd also like to see increased training for poll workers assisting electors with disabilities to ensure consistency at all polling stations across the country."
CNIB would like to see these measures in place before the next federal election. To learn more about the history of voting for Canadians who are blind or partially sighted – and how Canada compares to other countries – visit cnib.ca/90years.