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Speech by Minister of State Phelan - Seanad Statements on accessibility issues for voters with disabilities

Published on Tuesday, 06 Nov 2018
John Paul Phelan TD

Seanad Statements on accessibility issues for voters with disabilities

16.45pm on Tuesday 6 November 2018

Opening Statement by Minister Phelan

I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad this evening on accessibility issues for voters with disabilities. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and answer any questions you may have on this very important matter.

Electoral law contains specific provisions designed to make voting as accessible and as inclusive as possible.  While much has been achieved in improving accessibility to voting for people with disabilities, more needs to be done.

A lot of the focus over the years has been on physical access to polling stations and measures to ease difficulties presented by inaccessible polling stations.

I think it is useful to outline the various measures that apply -

  • provision is made for voting at an alternative polling station if a person with a physical disability is unable to vote at their local polling station,
  • there is a requirement on local authorities, when making polling schemes, to seek to select polling places where there will be at least one polling station  that is accessible to wheelchair users,
  • there is a requirement on returning officers to give public notice of polling stations that are inaccessible to wheelchair users so that the voters concerned can seek alternative  arrangements, and
  • there is also a requirement on returning officers to put in place practical arrangements in the polling station to make it easier for wheelchair users to mark their ballot papers and to place them in the ballot box.

It is also worth mentioning that the option of postal voting is often the preferred option for voters with a physical illness or disability and for those in nursing homes the special voting arrangements apply.

Despite these measures that are in place we still have a situation where a number of polling stations are inaccessible to voters with physical disabilities. While the number of such polling centres has decreased and is relatively small in the context of the number of polling stations across the country, I am sure we can agree that the aim must be to make all of our polling stations accessible.

However, while we work to achieve that aim we also have to recognise the need to be ready to conduct elections at short notice. To meet this requirement, returning officers have to provide a sufficient number of polling stations at every polling place in their constituencies. Polling places will normally be a village or some other population centre. The returning officer is required to locate polling stations as conveniently as possible for use by the electorate in each polling place. Where, for one reason or another, a sufficient number of polling stations cannot be provided at the appointed polling place, the returning officer can arrange for polling stations at any other convenient place.

In selecting locations for polling stations, the traditional approach has been to use schools. This is understandable given their central location in most communities. It is especially so in rural areas where a viable alternative to the local school may be difficult to find without inconveniencing the generality of voters in the area. If there are changed circumstances which see the provision of a community hall or other such building in these areas that are more accessible for people with disabilities, they should be considered for use in place of the local school.  The Department’s Guidance Document to returning officers advises that they may hire a hall or other premises if they consider this would be a more suitable arrangement, even where a school may be available for use in that area.  

Given the need to have polling stations in order to conduct elections and referendums, returning officers do in some circumstances select polling stations that are not normally accessible. But even in these cases, the Department’s Guidance Document advises returning officers to consider how in a reasonable and practical way they can make that centre more accessible. For example, this can include the provision of suitable ramps to improve access. To assist returning officers in this regard, the Guidance Document appends an ‘Accessible Voting Checklist’. This list has been developed using the National Disability Authority’s publication ‘Building for Everyone – a Universal Design Approach’, the Irish Wheelchair Association’s Best Practice Access Guidelines 2014 ‘Designing Accessible Environments’ and guidance and practice in other countries on accessible voting.

On balance, I think it is a case of remaining vigilant to the possibility of replacing inaccessible buildings with newer accessible buildings wherever they come on stream until such time as the problem is fully rectified. The Department will shortly be following up on an invitation received from the Irish Wheelchair Association to discuss accessibility at polling stations. The identification of problem areas and possible solutions will be the focus of these discussions.

I look forward to hearing the views of Senators on the matter.