Being able to vote people into power to represent us is a human right that not everyone can exercise. There are whole countries whose citizens unfortunately are still disenfranchised. And in other countries, elections are held which are not considered to be free and fair.
But even within democracies, while most people have a vote there is a substantial proportion of the population who cannot exercise this right, or who cannot exercise it in a free and well-informed manner. This is certainly the experience of many disabled people in EU countries, including Malta.
This comes out clearly in a report published by the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) on ‘The right to political participation of persons with disabilities’.
Disabled people’s rights to participate in political life are enshrined in Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Malta ratified in October 2012. The FRA report concludes that while large numbers of disabled people can exercise these rights, significant challenges remain in many countries to ensure reasonable accommodation for all.
As the FRA report notes, in most EU Member States the right to vote is linked with legal capacity. This means that people who have been deprived of their legal capacity, for example through interdiction, incapacitation or guardianship, are automatically deprived of the right to vote.
The recommendations made by the FRA report in this respect are very relevant to Malta, especially ensuring that the process for assessing whether a person can vote is a reliable one, and that disabled people who have been assessed as being unable to vote can appeal the decision in an accessible and independent manner. This issue is particularly relevant for people with intellectual disability and those with mental health issues.
Perhaps the most contentious issue related to voting in the Maltese context is the right to vote in secret. When Malta signed the CRPD in 2007, it made a reservation on Article 29 (a) (ii) in order to keep the current system where people who cannot vote on their own, do so in front of the assistant commissioners present in their polling booth.
At the same time as making the reservation, Malta also made a commitment to lift the reservation. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened despite the fact that, since 2007, in Malta there have been four rounds of local council elections, a general election, a European Parliament election with another one to be held later this month, and a referendum.
That makes it eight ballots in which time and again many disabled people had to vote in front of the assistant commissioners, against their will. This is especially so for people with visual impairments, those with print disabilities, those with intellectual disability, and people with mobility impairments affecting their upper body.
Perhaps the most contentious issue related to voting in the Maltese context is the right to vote in secret
Article 29 of the CRPD is very clear in obliging States Parties to use assistive technologies where these enable disabled people to vote by themselves and “where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice”. This is also one of the recommendations made in the FRA report, and one that Malta should address as soon as possible.
It is equally important for disabled people to have access to electoral manifestos and other campaign literature, public debates, and other types of information and communication. The FRA report also emphasises this. Websites need to be accessible in line with the relevant EU standards, as this ensures that disabled people, including persons who have visual impairments and print disabilities, can access them.
These persons also need to have printed information in audio and large print format, while persons with intellectual disability need to be provided easy-to-read versions. Furthermore, all debates, speeches and other spoken communication need to be interpreted in sign language to make them accessible to deaf people.
Being able to participate meaningfully in all aspects of the political process means providing different adjustments to cater for the impairment-related needs of different disabled people. It is only in this way that disabled people can be on an equal footing with non-disabled people in the exercise of one of the fundamental human rights.
Vickie Gauci is coordinator, and Anne-Marie Callus a lecturer, at the Disability Studies Unit, Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta.