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Vision-impaired voters could gain electronic assistance


Low-vision and blind South Australians would be given the option to vote using electronic assistance under proposed State Government amendments to the Electoral Act.

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A Bill introduced last week contains several provisions designed to make it easier for people with a disability to cast their vote in state elections.

The provisions, in a wider Bill which will also crack down on pre-poll voting, will give the Electoral Commissioner the discretion to introduce electronically-assisted voting so that vision-impaired people can maintain the secrecy of their vote.

At the moment, a vision-impaired voter can use an assistant at the polling booth or to make a postal vote, with the assistant reading out the ballot and taking instructions.

The new provision is aimed at enabling the voter to cast their vote in private. The Bill doesn’t define electronic voting, with the commissioner given the flexibility to look at options and make changes along with technological advances.

The Government told InDaily that several jurisdictions have options that could be explored.  For example, in Western Australia and Tasmania some polling booths have an audio-linked computer, allowing the voter to listen to options and make a selection.

Another option that could be explored for some voters is a computer screen that displays the ballot paper in extra-large type, then prints out a conventionally-sized paper – marked with the voter’s choices – for deposit in the ballot box.

At a federal level, vision-impaired voters can cast their vote by phone which maintains some privacy. A PIN and registration process ensure that, while an electoral officer takes the call and records the vote, the identity of the voter should remain secret.

The state Bill also contains a proposed extension to the provision that allows people to vote near, rather than in, a polling booth in some circumstances, such as where a person with a disability or illness is physically unable to enter the booth.

Attorney-General John Rau said the Government wanted voters with a disability to have an opportunity to cast their ballot with respect for their privacy and dignity.

He also indicated the Government was prepared to do more as technology improved.

“We remain open to discussions on possible future reforms which might assist voters, especially because technological advances are giving a voice to people with a disability in ways that has never been possible in the past,” he said.

Dignity for Disability MLC Kelly Vincent, who had introduced her own Bill to allow electronic voting which lapsed when Parliament was last prorogued, welcomed the measure.

She said vision-impaired people were upset that they could not cast a vote anonymously, nor could they be 100 per cent sure that the person transcribing their vote had done so accurately.

While the census debacle had raised concerns in the community about the security of electronic data, Vincent said the rights of disabled people should come before any cynicism about the process.

“The right of people to engage in democracy should outweigh any concerns,” she said.

Vincent, however, is less keen on the Government’s proposal to crack down on pre-poll voting, which Rau told Parliament should not be used simply for convenience.

“Pre-poll voting is part of our political landscape, it encourages participation, and it fits in with people’s busy lives, such as work, travel and family activities,” she said.

“The Government’s proposal to limit pre-poll voting to the four days ahead of election day will reduce not enhance our democracy.

“We still do not have, in South Australia, 100 per cent of polling booths being 100 per cent accessible, we still do not have election material provided in accessible formats – these are things that do need addressing, by any standard.”

Presuming the Bill passes, the Government hopes new electronic options will be available at the 2018 state election.

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