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Election accessibility (town hall report): What to expect in the 2015 federal elections

On Saturday, February 28th, 2015, AMI, Elections Canada, and AEBC presented a town hall discussion on the accessibility of federal elections. We were joined by Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, who is ultimately responsible to parliament for the operation of the Elections Canada regime.

The purpose of this discussion was primarily to gain an understanding of the issues that continue to face our community, and to gain an understanding of the problem from Elections Canada's perspective. There were more than 50 participants registered for the call, and AEBC was certainly well represented with many of our members having an opportunity to speak and share their point of view. I have heard from several others who would have liked to speak but for one reason or another were never able to "get the floor," so to speak.

For those who were not in attendance, I'd like to share a brief summary of what we heard over the course of this two-hour discussion. To that end, I will discuss:

I hope this summary is helpful and will provide everyone with a clear understanding of what we have achieved, what we can hope to achieve for the upcoming federal election, and what we need to do to move the elections agenda forward.

The Big Picture

Elections Canada has what can only be described as a tough job. To give some insight into the scope of the undertaking, one need only look at the 2011 federal election as an example of the amount and scope of work that goes into each election. In 2011,

  • Parliament was dissolved on March 26, 2011, and the government set the election date at May 2, 2011, leaving Elections Canada only 37 days to get everything ready.
  • More than 64,000 individual polling stations were set up on election day, at 15,260 different sites across the country.
  • Almost 236,000 individuals were hired to work during the election.
  • Of those, more than 180,000 essentially worked only one day: the day of the election.
  • More than 14 million votes were cast (and thus counted) during the election.

Each of those 236,000 individuals necessarily received only a couple of hours of training. That training does encompass some element of disability awareness education, and the various ways in which an elector could vote; however, the reality is that only so much information can be conveyed in the time available. And since most of these people work only one day (their first day is their last day), there is precious little opportunity to "learn on the job".

I state all this not because it necessarily provides Elections Canada with an "excuse" or "justification" for the various types of systemic failures that the blind, deaf-blind, and partially sighted community has encountered in respect of elections. But when dealing with the election issue, it is important to nonetheless bear in mind the big picture context under which an election operates. It is a mammoth undertaking at the best of times.

Key Issues

This list is not exhaustive, but some of the key issues identified by participants included the following:

  • Blind, deaf-blind, and partially sighted individuals sometimes have difficulty meeting the identification requirements at the polling station. Voters must provide proof of their identity (photo ID) as well as their address. For those with a driver's license or other provincially-issued identification, this is relatively easy to prove. For many, however, there is no one single piece of identification that has all of the necessary information on it, and so you must go to the polls prepared with a variety of documents.
  • The voter information cards that Elections Canada mails out are not accessible. The card includes instructions to verify your information and to call if there is an error; however, many people cannot read the card to know that, much less to be able to verify their information.
  • Polling stations are not necessarily accessible by public transit, which is the way in which many (if not most) in our community would get to the polls.
  • Getting information about or from candidates and political parties in an accessible format is virtually impossible.
  • The voting process itself is inaccessible: even with the use of a template, there is no way for a person who is blind to verify and confirm that the candidate they intended to vote for is in fact the candidate whose name is next to their "X".
  • Elections Canada staff is often confused (if not clueless) about what to do when a blind person comes to vote, for example, not knowing how or what an assistant must do in order to be allowed to help the blind person vote.
  • The voting ballot template does not sufficiently guarantee that the ballot will be in the proper place by the time the voter draws their X.

Elections Canada's Authority

First, Elections Canada has no oversight or regulatory authority on accessibility issues relating to candidates or political parties. While they agree that candidates and political parties should, as a matter of course, consider accessibility, they have no mandate or legislative authority to require, for example, that candidate materials be made available in alternative formats. It remains up to the community to advocate for that through other channels. It may be that federal legislation (such as a Canadians with Disabilities Act) could help on this front, but for now there is nothing that Elections Canada can do about inaccessible campaigns.

Second, Elections Canada has very little authority and leeway to change the way in which an election is run or to alter the voting mechanisms. They cannot, for example, introduce Internet or telephone voting without prior approval of parliament, nor can they substantially change the format or design of the voting ballots without legislative intervention. The Fair Elections Act, adopted last year by the government, has made the matter even worse, by forbidding Elections Canada from even attempting to run trials or "pilot projects" without the express prior approval of both the House of Commons and the Senate. Elections Canada had, for example, been looking at the possibility of conducting some trial runs of Internet voting. But with the passage of this new legislation and the requirement for pre-approval by both levels of the legislature, that has been put on hold.

The take-away from this is that any significant changes to the election process will require legislative intervention, and our efforts to that end need to be directed more at the politicians who make the rules, than to Elections Canada which is tasked with merely implementing them.

Internet and Electronic Voting

With respect to Internet or telephone voting, Elections Canada has done some preliminary work on this and might be able to proceed to a trial, but this requires the pre-approval of the House of Commons and the Senate. Although Internet voting has been used at the municipal and provincial level in some cases, it has not been met with great success when used at a federal level in other countries. Some have tried and ultimately abandoned it due to the technical and logistical issues that it presents. Nevertheless, there is agreement that Internet voting would substantially resolve many of the key accessibility issues that participants raised. It will, however, be up to the legislature, to move that forward.

In the last federal election a trial was run of some electronic voting machines as well. The results were not very encouraging. Very few people chose to use the machines. Those who did encountered all manner of difficulties, even with a technician on site. The speech recognition did not work for some. It was difficult to hear the machine for others. The process took longer. All in all, Elections Canada's conclusion of those trials was that these machines, at least, were not sufficiently meeting the needs of users to be workable on a widescale basis.

One common concern over "remote voting" is that it is not possible to be sure that the person casting a vote is the person who should be casting the vote. Nor is it possible to be sure that they are not being coerced in some way to vote a certain way. Elections Canada acknowledges that this is a bit of a silly argument, given that you can already vote by mail (where the possibility of identity fraud is equally applicable, and no guarantees over coercion can be made).

Getting Information

Elections Canada is given very little information about potential voters. In light of the applicable privacy legislation, the only information that Elections Canada retains is your name and your address. They do not know, nor do they maintain records, about your disability, your accommodations, or the format that you would like to receive information in.

To try to get information out to more people in an accessible format, however, Elections Canada will be providing CNIB with information on the upcoming election to forward to their registrants in the accessible format of their choice. This will include background information on how the election process will work, who to call for more information, how to verify you are on the voting list, and so forth.

For those who are "online", the Elections Canada web site will have all of the information that you should need in order to confirm you are registered to vote, and to find out where you are to go to vote. Simply providing your postal code will give you access to most of that crucial information.

The voter information cards that are sent out by mail will not be in braille. Because they do not know who would want braille, they would have to produce all 20 million cards with braille in order to hit those who need it -- and there simply isn't the production capacity for that much braille in Canada. However, if you have any doubt as to whether you are properly registered to vote, you can confirm that through the web site or by telephone with Elections Canada.

The Voting Sites and the Voting Process

In terms of the voting sites themselves, each voting location will have been assessed against a 35-point checklist relating to accessibility considerations. This is not a guarantee that every site will meet every criteria: some communities simply do not have facilities in them that will meet every accessibility criteria (for example, accessibility by public transit). You will, however, be able to look up your voting sites and verify that the site that you are to vote at will meet the requirements that you have in order to vote. If the site is not suitable for you (because it has stairs, or because it is not accessible by public transit, for example), you can call Elections Canada and get permission to vote at another location that meets your accessibility needs.

At the polls, you can expect that a list of the candidates names (in the order they appear on the ballot) will be available in braille for your use. You may choose to vote with the assistance of a trusted friend or other third party, who will be required to swear an oath (affirming that they will keep your vote secret, etc.). You will also be allowed to bring your own access technology devices to assist you -- for example, a magnifier. There are some limits to this. You cannot keep a digital copy of your ballot (i.e. a photograph). You cannot use an app like FaceTime or Be My Eyes to solicit sighted assistance from a third party who is not present in person at the voting booth. More details will be forthcoming on exactly what is and is not permitted. Finally, if all else fails, it is possible to vote with a mail-in ballot. In this case, you pre-register with Elections Canada, and then the ballots are available they will mail you a voting kit with a set of return envelopes.

Our Next Steps

What I took away from this session was that, at the end of the day, making any significant changes to the electoral process, such as allowing Internet and telephone voting, is a political issue more than anything else. We need to convince politicians, and not necessarily Elections Canada, to make these changes. The somewhat secretive 'accessibility advisory committee' that is 'advising' Elections Canada may do some things that are worthwhile, but it appears that the degree to which they can influence the process is very limited by the legislation.

One possibility that did get raised was the fact that we, as people who have an interest in this, could apply to work for Elections Canada during the election. Efforts have been made to ensure that the training workshops and materials will be accessible and available electronically to all new employees. Having a person with a disability working in a polling station would inherently sensitize the others in that area to the potential issues, and do so more effectively than Elections Canada ever could in a training seminar. Some positions may be more or less plausible for a person with a visual impairment to do, but if you have the time to spare, this could be one way of making a difference at the ground level.

Recognizing that not every AEBC member is registered with CNIB, we will reach out to Elections Canada to see whether we too could be provided with information kits in an alternative format to forward to those who are interested. If the information is available electronically we will circulate that to everyone as a matter of course.

Conclusion

I hope that this summary is helpful and provides members with an overall perspective of where we're at and where we need to go on the election front. If this is an issue that interests you and that you would like to tackle, we have membership policy in support of accessible elections: Resolution 2007-08 (Accessible Elections), We must recognize that, given the necessary involvement of the multiple levels of government, this is a long-term goal that will take several more rounds of elections to fully achieve. We must not however be complacent. Change can happen, but some ground-level advocacy work (meeting with individual MPs and senators, for example) is going to be required to make it happen.

Disclaimer:

This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.