The right to vote for all is a matter of human dignity

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Commission is about to unveil the EU's new Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for the next decade, Krzysztof Pater writes about one of the areas where discrimination is still acutely felt – the right to vote, effectively denied to many persons with disabilities around Europe. [EPA/JAKUB KACZMARCZYK]

As the European Commission is about to unveil the EU’s new Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for the next decade, Krzysztof Pater writes about one of the areas where discrimination is still acutely felt – the right to vote, effectively denied to many persons with disabilities across Europe.

Krzysztof Pater is a Polish member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

It seems unbelievable and outrageous that within present-day EU territory, the last ban on women’s right to vote was lifted as late as 1976, exactly 70 years after Finland became the first among today’s member states to admit women to its polling stations.

Yet few seem to bat an eyelid that this same right is now denied to millions of EU citizens simply because they have some sort of disability.

In eight member states, you will not be able to vote for your candidate in the European or any other election unless you are in good health and physically able to come to the voting booth.

If you are blind, 18 member states will not make it possible for you to vote unassisted. If your disability prevents you from using your hands, you will not be able to vote in nine countries where you choose your candidate by writing their or their party’s name or identification number on your ballot paper.

These figures are not random – between 2016 and late 2018, I conducted surveys in 27 member states, listing in detail all the limitations and obstacles faced by voters with disabilities. I obtained information from numerous sources, such as state election commissions and disability organisations.

At the end of my research, I concluded that due to these legal and technical barriers, not a single EU country would be able to guarantee that elections would be fully accessible to all.

The results of my research were published in the report “The real right of persons with disabilities to vote in European Parliament elections”, adopted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) two months prior to the European elections held in May 2019.

My findings were confirmed shortly afterwards by the election reports from the media and civil society organisations.

Due to some positive changes in Germany and France immediately before the EP elections, the original number of people excluded from voting due to mental health problems or intellectual disabilities was halved but remained high at 400,000 unable to exercise that right in as many as 14 EU countries.

Those who were not able to cast their ballots due to technical or organisational arrangements were counted in millions.

The situation will not improve by itself and if no legal changes are made to lift these barriers, the number of citizens potentially denied this right will continue to steadily rise as the share of people with some sort of disability in the rapidly ageing EU population increases by one percent every six years on average.

How is it possible that in the 21st century so many citizens are or will soon be unable to vote just because they have a disability, and decision-makers do so little to change that? The EESC considers such discrimination to be unacceptable and contrary to the fundamental values of the EU, to the Treaty and to major international legal and political acts.

Something must be urgently done to guarantee that in 2024, when the next EP elections take place, all people with disabilities will have a genuine right to vote.

On 2 December 2020, on the eve of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the EESC adopted an opinion which is a follow up to my 2019 report and calls on the EP, the Council of the EU and member states to urgently amend the 1976 EU Electoral Act.

More specifically, we ask for the clarification of the principles of universality, secrecy and directness in the text of the Act.

We are demanding that the Act include a statement that no EU citizen may be deprived of their right to vote in EP elections because of a disability or health condition on the basis of national law.

Such a statement will clarify the principle of universal suffrage in the Act, making it impossible for voting arrangements for persons with disabilities to differ from one country to another, which is now the case.

For example, a person who is bed-ridden has the right to vote by post, mobile ballot box or internet if they live in one country, whereas if the same person was at present living in another country, they would not be able to vote at all.

To clarify the principles of the directness and secrecy referred to in the Act, we propose introducing a set of standards that will ensure that all persons with disabilities, regardless of the type of their disability, can vote unassisted and in secret.

Among other things, these standards involve putting in place necessary technical arrangements to guarantee unassisted voting for persons with disabilities in need of significant support – such as people who are deaf, blind, visually impaired or have limited manual dexterity.

They plan a change in the national rules that still prevent citizens from changing their designated polling station to one more accommodating for their type of disability: this is now not possible in 12 EU countries.

As an EU advisory body, the EESC can focus only on the EU elections, but changes in the EU electoral law would certainly be reflected in the national rules governing local or national elections.

The EESC thinks the EU could tap into the positive experience of many countries to implement the proposed solutions – my 2019 report lists as many as 200 good practices from all Member States. We believe that if they were all put together and all bad practices were ditched, in 2024 we will have EP elections that are fully accessible to all.

The right to vote is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of European democracy. But above all, it is also a matter of human dignity. Why do we keep denying it to so many among us?

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