No significant progress on accessibility of European polling stations for persons with disabilities

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we spoke to the EESC's Vice President for Budget, Krzysztof Pater, who authored the 2019 information report on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote in European elections

Just ahead of the vote for the European Parliament in 2019, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) adopted the information report Real rights of persons with disabilities to vote in European Parliament elections. The report, compiled on the basis of surveys conducted over two years in all EU Member States, revealed that not a single EU Member State was able to guarantee that the 2019 elections would be accessible to all.

In December 2020, the EESC adopted the opinion The need to guarantee real rights for persons with disabilities to vote in the European Parliament elections, in which it called on the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and Member States to urgently amend the 1976 Electoral Act in a way that guarantees that all EU citizens with disabilities have a genuine right to vote in the EP elections in 2024.

We spoke to Mr Pater, who was the rapporteur of both the information report and the opinion, and asked him what the state of play is half a year before European voters are to cast their ballots again.

In your 2019 report, you stated that millions of voters with disabilities would be deterred by technical barriers at polling stations which did not take into account the needs resulting from their various types of disability. With the new elections around the corner, do you know if any of these barriers have been removed in the last five years?

Krzysztof Pater: The report adopted by the EESC in 2019 included more than 200 concrete examples of good practices in all EU Member States.  Many of them related to technical barriers at polling stations. This report was published in all EU languages, so I believe that some of them were implemented. However, I have no information about any systematic approach by the national public authorities, for example of making some practices mandatory in all or at least in a number of polling stations across their country. Therefore, from this perspective, I regret to say that no significant progress has been observed in the EU in the last five years.

In the same report, you stated that 800 000 EU citizens suffering from mental health problems or with an intellectual disability would be deprived of the right to vote on account of national rules that were in force in 16 Member States. Some countries revised these rules just before the 2019 elections. Has this number been reduced and do you know how many people with this type of disability will be denied their right to vote in the forthcoming European elections?

Krzysztof Pater: Just before the 2019 European Parliament election, two big countries – Germany and France - removed all legal barriers, so now I estimate that about 400 000 EU citizens are affected by the legal barriers and as a consequence they don’t have the right to vote. Depending on the scope of these legal limitations in a given country, I estimate that between 1 to about 100 000 citizens could be affected in a single Member State.

What amendments in the 1976 Electoral Act did you ask for in the opinion The need to guarantee real rights for persons with disabilities to vote in the European Parliament elections?

Krzysztof Pater:  The main idea of this opinion was to create a legal framework in which each EU citizen, regardless of their nationality and place of residence, will have the same voting rights in the European Parliament elections. A few changes in the Electoral Act may lead to the full removal of legal barriers, assuring that nobody will be deprived of voting rights in EP elections. And just a few other changes may create a very good framework to adjust national practices by removing at least the majority of the existing technical barriers. More specifically, we called for clarification of the principles of universality, directness and secrecy of elections, which would make it possible to implement standards throughout the EU that would guarantee real voting rights for persons with disabilities, in accordance with Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We demanded that the Act should 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. This would 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 currently 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.

As for the principles of the directness and secrecy referred to in the Act, we proposed introducing a set of standards which 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.

People should be also able to change their designated polling station to one that is more accommodating for their type of disability and freely choose a personal assistant who will support them in exercising their right to vote.