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'Completely ridiculous': Department criticised over last-minute information for voters with sight loss

There are 55,000 people in Ireland living with sight loss.

THERE ARE CONCERNS that people living with sight loss in Ireland will decide not to vote because information about the availability of special voting templates was only made available this morning. 

The National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) has criticised the government for poor communication in relation to voting facilities, as information was only given to the organisation this morning. 

There are 55,000 people in Ireland living with sight loss. This is the first general election where tactile ballot template system is to be used to facilitate voters with a visual impairment. 

In practice, this means that a transparent plastic device that can be placed on top of a normal ballot paper to assist people with sight loss in the voting process. 

The template has raised print and braille so it can be used to vote without assistance. Cut-out boxes on the right-hand side allow the voter to write their preferences on the ballot paper without the assistance of a companion or the presiding officer. 

The templates have been trialled before and were used in last year’s local and European elections. 

It is a resource that has long been called for by groups representing people in Ireland living with sight loss, of which there are 55,000, but there is concern now that the templates will not be used. 

This is because freephone services and digital lists, which are essential components of this system, were only made available earlier today. 

How it works

The template system is somewhat complicated. Instead of names and party details on the left-hand side, like there is on the actual ballot paper, there are numbers. Each number has a corresponding candidate. So the first candidate named on the ballot paper will be number 1, the second will be number 2 and so on. 

tactile ballot This is the type of template that would be used in a referendum. The election template will have numbers on the right-hand side instead of the Yes/No. Source: NCBI

In order to find out which candidate corresponds to each number, the voter can call a freephone number and listen to a recording of all of the names and their parties. 

The website for each returning officer is also supposed to have a digital list available for people to use on their smartphones. 

The NCBI told TheJournal.ie that it was only provided with information about the freephone numbers and the digital lists this morning. 

“Unfortunately, the confirmation of free phone and online information in advance of tomorrow’s election has been very poor with the NCBI only receiving a complete list this morning for all 39 constituencies,” head of advocacy Kevin Kelly said. 

This has limited our ability to promote the availability of the templates to people who are blind and vision impaired who use our services. In fact, the lack of information will mean for some blind and vision impaired voters they will not use the templates or may even decide not to vote.

He said the Department of Housing and Local Government needs to ensure that information is provided in a more timely fashion for future elections. 

“Failure to do this will  undermine the usage and the very existence of the tactile templates.”

The government was warned about this issue previously, in May last year ahead of the local an European elections.

The NCBI said there had been a lack of coordinated information to assist people who are blind and visually impaired.

‘You’d need a third hand’

Robbie Sinnott, a visually impaired man, won a case in the High Court against the State in 2017 when he sought to vindicate his right to vote without assistance. 

Since then he has been working with the Department of Housing working group representing his organisation Voices of Vision Impairment.

He explained to TheJournal.ie that the digital lists are particularly important, because they allow the voter to go through the names in their own time using a programme that reads them out loud and to go back and forth on the list. 

The freephone call, according to Sinnott, can take several minutes and the recording only plays once. If the voter wants to hear the names again, they have to call again. 

“The person has to cast a vote with phone in one hand and pencil in other, locating corresponding numbers and boxes at the same time,” he explained.

“You’d need a third hand to do it and you also have to remember all the names as you go down. You’re still thinking about number four when they’re reading number eight out.”

Sinnott has also been pushing for the use of an easel to secure the stencil to the ballot paper and avoid issues caused by the surfaces in the booths being too short for the ballot paper. 

Although he said it was “good news” that the lists were posted today, he noted some had errors, including that People Before Profit candidate in Dublin South Central Brid Smith had been left off the list entirely.

He said made the Dublin City returning officer aware of the error and “this has since been rectified”.

“The whole thing is just completely ridiculous, it could be very simple. There are 55,000 people who are blind in Ireland. If that was any other community there would be outrage.”

In a statement, Barney Doherty, campaign manager for Brid Smith said that leaving out the name of a sitting TD on a ballot paper for the visually impaired “indicates either gross negligence or unconscious bias”.

Doherty said he was informed by the Dublin City Returning Officer that the production of this paper was outsourced to a private company.

 This omission is a deep insult to the visually impaired community as well as an affront to the democratic process itself.

The helpline for Dublin South-Central has been taken out of service “due to a technical error”. 

“The Presiding Officer in your polling station will assist any visually impaired voters on polling day where required,” the Dublin City Returning Officer website states. 

In a statement the department said it contacted each returning officer requesting them to set up a Freephone 1800 number and to upload their script on their websites.

“Information on the Freephone 1800 number is available on the returning officers’ website details of which can be found attached.

“The script for each constituency has also been uploaded so those with screen reading technology can have the information read out to them in the way referred to by Mr Sinnott. Information on the BPT and the Freephone 1800 number is also available on the Departments website.”

- Additional reporting from Adam Daly 

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