Despite suggestions to make voting more accessible, people with disabilities still face barriers. Megan Linton · for CBC News · Posted: Sep 01, 2019
A man arrives at a polling station on the first day of advance voting for a federal byelection in Burnaby South on Feb. 15, 2019. Despite recommendations from an advisory group on disability issues formed by Elections Canada in 2014, little has changed for voters with disabilities as Manitobans prepare to vote in both a provincial and federal election in the coming weeks, says Megan Linton.
Across the province, electoral signs dominate the advertising space benches in blue, large billboards in orange, flags in red and lawn signs the four colours of the electoral rainbow. The impact of the election sprint in Manitoba can be seen across the province, beyond the inundation of electoral advertisements.
Brian Pallister’s early election call has raised alarm bells across Manitoba, and has widely been understood as a response to the one percentage point PST decrease that came into effect early this summer.
However, an important aspect that is critical to understanding the desire for the early election is the impact of the combined federal and provincial elections.
The Manitoba election takes place Sept. 10, more than a year prior to the fixed date legislation, and only 41 days before the Oct. 21 federal election. The joint forces of the provincial and federal election mean that parties can rely on the narratives of their federal counterparts.
This tactic is not only unfair but is additionally problematic for voters with disabilities people with a full right to vote, but who are continually disenfranchised by the democratic system and electoral process.
Prior to the 2015 federal election, Elections Canada created an advisory group for disability issues, which released a list of priorities for federal elections. Two of the 11 recommendations were around voting clarity and including photos of candidates at the polling station and on ballots.
Despite the advisory group’s 2016 report, and its work prior to the 2015 election, nothing has changed.
Representatives from Manitoba’s four main political parties participated in a debate organized by Disability Matters Vote on Aug. 27. Though the organization is working to ensure that disability issues are part of the election campaign, it is the responsibility of Elections Canada and Elections Manitoba to ensure that Canadians can exercise their right to vote, says Linton.
Adding images to ballots increases the accessibility of the ballot substantially and is of particular importance for people living with intellectual disabilities, people with learning disabilities, neurodivergent people, people with brain injuries, and people with cognitive disabilities.
Unsurprisingly, when Elections Manitoba released its accessibility report for the upcoming election, there was no commitment or comment on the recurring demand for the disability community to include candidate photos.
This is particularly important in the upcoming elections because of the sheer density of candidates and advertisements, and because the lack of differentiation between the federal and provincial parties can, and will, lead to confusion at the polls. Including photos of candidates at polling stations is a cost-effective and empowering addition to the accessibility of polls.
For many voters this information could be a pivotal accessibility feature that would not only allow them to cast a ballot, but to leave the polls feeling empowered, understood and feeling confident that they voted for the person they intended to vote for.
The failure of both Elections Canada and Election Manitoba to comply with the disability issues advisory is devastating in this election season.
Little support for voters with disabilities
Back-to-back failure is not only disappointing but ultimately further disenfranchises an already-disenfranchised population. Confusing voters on who to vote for is malicious, and the joint failure of the elections organizations feels deliberate. Of the 11 recommendations of the committee, none received support from Elections Canada, resulting in us heading into an election season being unsupported at the polls.
People with disabilities are one of the groups with the lowest voter turnout, voter registration, and representation at the polls. Despite the Accessible Canada Act and the Accessibility for Manitobans Act, the concentration of, and support for, disabled voters remains low. People with disabilities were among the last group to receive the right to vote, finally gaining our full right to vote in 1993.
The consistent ignorance and dismissal of voting rights for disabled voters is critical. Across Manitoba the Disability Matters Vote campaign has had significant support.
Along with People First Manitoba’s pop-up voting practice stations, disability advocates and organizations are working tirelessly to ensure that disability issues are brought to the polls, and that disabled voters are able to actively participate in democracy. However, it is the responsibility of Elections Canada and Elections Manitoba to, as they say, ensure “that Canadians can exercise their democratic rights to vote.”
An early election call has created confusion and yet another barrier for voters with disabilities, says Megan Linton.
Elections Canada and Elections Manitoba have failed voters this election season. Moreover, the unnecessarily early election creates additional barriers and confusion that, paired with the lack of action by the election organizations, continues the disenfranchisement of disabled voters in a cruel, usual way.
We are lucky in Manitoba to have committed disability advocates and service organizations willing to support voters. However, we should not continue to have to rely on volunteer work to supplement the tangible action that is required to be able to fully guarantee the franchise to the 13.7 per cent of Canadians who live with disabilities.