Saturday 25 May 2019

Democracy for all

All! Since 1972, following the Fourth Amendment to the constitution, every citizen over the age of 18 may vote in elections and referendums. Every citizen?? For most of us, it's straighforward: take your polling card to the voting centre; get the ballot and mark it up; pop it in the ballot box; have a congratulatory cup of tea. No problem if you're deaf. But what about if you're legally blind or otherwise incapacitated -  the Downs? demented? two broken arms? Clearly it would be a Bad Thing to exclude such people because the can't read the ballot paper or write numbers in the boxes. But how much is democracy prepared to accommodate them? A few Braille ballots at each polling station?

Section 103 of the Electoral Act of 1992 applies.  The presiding officer may ask the Elector to swear that they are so incapacitated that they require assistance, but they are not obliged to do so. An official called a Personation Agent may descend on the polling station and require the presiding officer to administer the oath. Otherwise the presiding officer is able to use good judgement.

Most of the difficult cases are swept up by allowing a Companion to enter the booth with the Elector to help push the process along. That companion must be a) at least 16 years old, b) not standing for election and c) not the agent for one standing for election. You also can't make a living hiring yourself out as a companion. Any companion may help a maximum of two electors in any one election. That is a reasonable compromise - adult son may take both his aged parents to the polling booth; but the owner of a nursing home cannot rock up with a charabanc full of demented democrats.

In the absence of a companion, the presiding officer, shall, in the presence of the Elector - but no other person, mark up the ballot for the Elector. "the presiding officer may assist the elector by reading out in full from the ballot paper the particulars stated in respect of each candidate". Which is fine if the Elector is a perfectly lucid blind person; but maybe not so straight-forward if Elector is also hard of hearing and/or losing a few marbles. And the privacy requirement is not going to happen, folks. Polling stations are usually drafty halls or classrooms with fold-out polling booths made up from hard-board and 2x1s: it would be hard to find a quiet place to read out the list of candidates and their affiliations. That is 23 candidates <!!> for the European Elections in Ireland South: the ballot being the size of a pillow case.

There you are. I didn't know how all that worked until, perforce, I became a Companion. With my interest in Signing, you'll expect that I found the site where the Referendum is explained in ISL. The information is also available for those with intellectual disability. I can't tell you how we voted; that goes against the principle of a secret ballot. Later today, I hope to visit the secret beach.

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