Multiple breaches of international law. New Zealand’s local government voting system discriminates against disabled people
I’ve been actively campaigning for a more inclusive, accessible society since I was a child, and in a more formal sense since I was 16. Advocacy and activism results in no progress most of the time, almost imperceptible progress sometimes, and if you’re very persistent, you might see ground-breaking change occasionally.
The older I am and the more progress I’ve been a part of, the more Stoic I’ve become. Like the classic Mainland Cheese ad says, “good things take time”. I am still optimistic enough to believe that justice wins in the end.
But there is one issue that I find profoundly emotional. It upsets me when I think about it, because it has been allowed to go on for years and it speaks to the second-class status disabled people have in society. I refer to the lack of ability for blind New Zealanders like me, and others with print impairments, to cast a secret ballot in local government elections.
Like many New Zealanders, I attended ANZAC Day services at my school from an early age. Every year, we were told that people fought and died on foreign shores to preserve the freedoms we continue to enjoy. I was told that we should never take them for granted, and that one of the best ways to respect their sacrifice was to vote in elections.
As I have embraced my whakapapa as a disabled person, I have gained profound respect for the fact that many people acquired impairments because of their participation in armed conflict. They came home determined that having fought for their country, they were not going to be written off by that country. Those who became disabled because of war advocated for many of the rights that congenitally disabled people like me now enjoy.
Given that choosing one’s government, be it local or central, is one of the most precious rights we have, it is insulting and outrageous that there is no means in 2022 for print impaired people to cast a truly secret, verifiable ballot in New Zealand. It’s not that there aren’t several viable solutions, it’s simply that it is not deemed important enough. Only pressure exerted by disabled people will change that.
As part of my research for this article, I searched for anything related to the accessibility of this year’s local government elections and was pleased to note that candidate information in accessible formats is more widely available. Here in Wellington, Braille hardcopy information about the candidates can be found at libraries, and several accessible formats are available online. But frankly, this reminds me of the old jokes around Braille on drive-through ATMs. It’s great that we can read this information, but how do we vote secretly like everyone else? We cannot, and that is a fundamental breach of human rights.
The arduous process of voting
I am fortunate to have the very best assistive technology that has been developed for blind people. Many cannot afford it. But even in my privileged position, here’s how the voting process in local government elections goes for my wife, who is also blind, and me.
The first part of the process occurs when we receive a communication from the Electoral Commission in an inaccessible format. This comes in the form of a hardcopy print letter in the mailbox when our preference is to receive something electronic. Since I have registered on multiple occasions as a print impaired voter with the Electoral Commission, they should in my view make the effort to communicate accessibly with me but do not. It is therefore necessary for us to use assistive technology to convert something inaccessible (hardcopy print) into something accessible (electronic text). These days, I do that with my iPhone, which has a fantastic camera and many apps designed specifically to convert print into electronic text for blind people. Optical character recognition can sometimes produce errors, but usually the process works fine. This is an unnecessary waste of my time though, since the letter we received would have started life in a more accessible electronic format before it was turned into inaccessible print, only for us to try to convert it back again.
We are connected online with things happening in our community, so we are aware of roughly when to expect the inaccessible voting papers for the election. When they arrive, we use the same technology to identify the voting papers and put them to one side.
We read information about the candidates online. I am able to do this because the computers and smartphones I use include screen reading technology that speaks, or displays in Braille, what is on the screen. In recent years, the Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council have done a good job of making the information accessible to screen readers. As I read, I make notes about the candidates.
Where the process becomes egregiously discriminatory is that I cannot vote independently. It is necessary for me to involve a third-party to complete the voting papers for me. I am fortunate to have family members close by who I trust fully, and who I know will respect my wishes even if they disagree with me. But I must find a time when it works for them and for us to dictate my voting preferences to them. If for some reason I wanted to verify my ballot, I could ask someone else to verify how it has been marked, but with every person I include in this process, my vote becomes less and less secret.
And again, not everyone has the privileges I do. There will be print disabled people who may feel intimidated about expressing their true political preferences in front of someone helping them. Abuse of disabled people, psychological and otherwise, is far too common in our society. If a print impaired person feels the need to seek independent verification of the voting papers, this could be interpreted by some helpers as an expression of no confidence in their integrity.
Even where intimidation is not a consideration, many disabled people feel that they need to be selective about when they seek the help of friends and family members. They’re conscious of not going too often to the well of goodwill or being too much of a burden, so they will question whether local government elections are important enough to expend some of that limited capital.
Some print disabled people may be able to make it to a venue that may or may not be offered by a local council where someone might assist, but they will still not have cast a truly secret ballot.
Multiple breaches of international law
New Zealand has a self-congratulatory tendency when it comes to disability issues. It’s easy to demonise and marginalise people like me who care enough and are articulate enough to point these issues out. But where that marginalisation comes unstuck is when international scrutiny comes New Zealand’s way, as it did recently at the UN. New Zealand, quite rightly, got a bollocking there. Let there be no doubt, the blatant discrimination perpetrated against disabled people through this local government election voting process represents multiple breaches of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which New Zealand is a signatory.
The process breaches almost every principle in Article 3, General Principles. These include:
- “Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons.” My dignity and independence are not respected when my vote is less secret than someone else’s by virtue of my impairment.
- “Full and effective participation and inclusion in society”. When print impaired people are denied a secret ballot, we can hardly be said to be included.
- “Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity”. As I will discuss below, these issues are fixable. The fact that they have not yet been addressed demonstrates a lack of respect for disabled people.
- “Equality of opportunity”. When we can not vote independently or secretly, print impaired people have been denied this.
- “Accessibility”. The voting process is fundamentally inaccessible.
Article 4, General Obligations, states in part.
- “b) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities”. New Zealand’s failure to address this longstanding issue when there are remedies available is a breach of this clause.
- “c) To take into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes.” Given that there are few rights more fundamental than a secret ballot in a democracy, New Zealand has not met this UNCRPD obligation.
Article 5, equality and non-discrimination, states in part:
“3. In order to promote equality and eliminate discrimination, States Parties shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.” New Zealand has failed to do so.
The UNCRPD considers participation in political and public life to be so important that there is an entire article devoted to it. It is article 29, and states in part:
“States Parties shall guarantee to persons with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them on an equal basis with others, and shall undertake:
- a) To ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected, inter alia, by:
- Ensuring that voting procedures, facilities and materials are appropriate, accessible, and easy to understand and use.
- Protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation, and to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, facilitating the use of assistive and new technologies where appropriate”.
The right to a secret ballot is specifically mentioned in this article. There can be no doubt that what print impaired people are enduring represents multiple, serious breaches of the UNCRPD.
How to fix it
The easiest way to resolve this issue would be to ensure that telephone voting, which has been available to print disabled people in recent national elections and referenda, is also used in local government elections. While it isn’t perfect, telephone voting ensures that a print impaired person’s vote is secret and independently verifiable.
A print impaired person registers with the Electoral Commission by phone and is sent a unique identifier. They also provide an answer to a secret question. When the print impaired person calls in to vote, they quote their unique identifier and authenticate with the answer to their secret question, so the person assisting with the vote has no idea who is calling. When the vote is complete, the ballot paper is handed to a second official who reads it back to the voter.
I say it isn’t perfect, because one of its downsides is that it does not accommodate DeafBlind people who cannot use a telephone. For this reason I also support print impaired people being able to vote online. Online voting has been discussed for many years, only to have trials cancelled due to security concerns. Requiring use of a two-factor authentication app, like Google Authenticator, seems reasonable to me. I appreciate that this may create a barrier to entry, but in my view, the right to cast a secret ballot is worth it.
I care about electing those who represent me. One of my parents’ most frequent aphorisms was “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain”. I have taken this to heart, and I care. But voting in these elections as a blind person is one hell of an effort. It’s a struggle. It’s a chore, and there’s no reason it has to be that way. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it represents multiple breaches of international law.
Nevertheless, it is the system we have, yet again, this year. So to all disabled people, I encourage you to hang in there, and urge you to do what you must to be engaged and have your say. Quiz the candidates on their knowledge of disability issues. What happens at local government level matters. We can do both. We can struggle along with this discriminatory system that dishonours those who fought and died for democracy, while also working for a better one in three years’ time. Let’s make sure disabled people count in these elections.