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New powers ‘could finally force change on voting access’

New powers ‘could finally force change on voting access’
29th July 2010 developer

The UK’s elections watchdog says that tough new powers would allow it to force action from elections officers who fail to make their polling stations accessible to disabled people.

The Electoral Commission called for the new powers in a report on this year’s general election, when chaotic scenes saw more than 1,200 people unable to vote because of queues at polling stations.

The commission said the government should produce a “comprehensive electoral modernisation strategy” to ensure that future elections were “straightforward, accessible and secure”.

A commission spokeswoman told Disability News Service that giving it a “power of direction” over returning officers – who are responsible for running elections in local areas – would enable it to force improvements in those areas with inaccessible polling stations.

A survey of more than 1,000 polling stations at the election by the disability charity Scope found two thirds (67 per cent) failed to meet at least one of seven basic access criteria – such as having large print ballot papers and a tactile voting device for visually-impaired people. This was an improvement of just one percentage point since 2005.

Scope also found just 59 per cent of polling stations had properly-designed level access into the building, down from 60 per cent in 2005.

The commission spokeswoman said: “At the moment there is nothing either us or Scope could do outside the normal disability laws. Part of the problem is all we can do is give guidance to people.”

Marc Bush, Scope’s head of policy, said non-disabled voters had suddenly realised what disabled people had been experiencing at elections “since time immemorial”.

He said Scope was “slightly disappointed” that the commission was only calling for urgent change because of the problems experienced by non-disabled people.

He said: “Had they heeded the findings of our previous reports they would have known that inevitably the system would lead to this for non-disabled people as well.”

He said Scope was also disappointed that the commission’s report did not call for an expansion of voting methods, such as online voting.

He said: “If people had that choice and they could enforce best practice [at polling stations] people would have a real choice.”

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the government welcomed the report, and the finding that the elections were “well run in the main with most areas encountering no major issue” was “welcome”.

She added: “We will respond to the report once we’ve had a chance to consider it fully and to hear the views of other stakeholders on the recommendations made.”