Canadians with disabilities deserve to vote without barriers

The pandemic has proven that ensuring accessibility is possible

A person in a wheelchair going through a hallway.
We need to devote more resources to confront ableism in the voting process. PHOTO: Marcus Aurelius / Pexels

By Luke Faulks, SFU student

For Canadians with disabilities, no election is without challenge. Nevertheless, voting access strategies during COVID-19 have produced some meaningful results for citizens with visual or physical disabilities.

Among the many inadvertent lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, is the realization that increasing the availability of alternate forms of voting helps to drive participation of citizens with disabilities. According to data compiled by Rutgers University, the 2020 US election saw an increase in turnout of “5.9 points relative to the 2016 election, which was slightly more than the 5.3 point increase among citizens without disabilities.”

Over the last year, democracies have stumbled into several partial solutions for disability voter access. 

For the first time in Canadian history, this system includes online registration for everyone to vote by mail, thereby preventing the necessity to travel or enter a building. The process of casting a ballot by mail itself offers voters with disabilities a chance to avoid casting a ballot at a polling place that, once again, may not meet their mobility needs. At present, however, voting by mail is not a guaranteed service for all elections. For example, a 2021 byelection in the City of Burnaby, voting by mail was not an option provided.  

The secret ballot process, an integral part of democratic elections, poses problems for people with visual impairments. In a polling station, a sighted friend is sometimes asked to walk a visually impaired voter through the options at hand, then mark the voter’s choice down. Advocates argue “the sighted assistant may try to take advantage of the situation and influence the disabled voter.” The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) says voting in Canada will not be “truly accessible” until voters with visual disabilities can “independently cast” their ballots. 

A 2015 report by Elections Canada identified 350 out of 661 polling locations lacked wheelchair accessibility. While these locations were temporarily fitted with ramps during the election, a BC Disability Caucus representative argued some ramps were installed at a 45-degree angle, making them unscalable. 

For starters, Canadian voters with disabilities can be well-served by maintaining the expanded vote-by-mail system. In the US, states concerned with increased voter turnout in the 2020 election driven partially by mail-in voting, have introduced voter suppression bills that, among other tactics, “shorten the window to apply [and] deliver a mail ballot.” By going in the opposite direction, By widening the time in which mail ballots can be applied for and sent in, Canada can help promote a service that supports voters with disabilities. Ensuring consistent access to mail-in voting, during, and post-pandemic can help support voters with mobility issues.

During the 2017 BC election, Elections BC, in partnership with the CNIB, launched an assisted telephone voting program aimed at voters with “vision loss, a disability, or health condition.” Around 1,000 British Columbians who fit the criteria voted by phone in 2017. During the 2020 provincial election, the number shot up to approximately 1,900. 

In 2020, officials expressed concern that “ineligible voters [ . . . ] could tie up phone lines” if trying to vote by phone. However, this could be solved through a more robust phone voting system to promote participation by visually and mobility impaired voters. This may mean adding more volunteers and for election officials to guarantee access to voting by phone. The process of voting by phone, paired with online registration for all voters, offers a potential new tool for visual impaired voters to independently cast their ballots. 

Expanded registration options, lengthening voting by mail deadlines, and voting by phone have been tools adopted to reduce voters’ potential exposure to COVID-19. Devoting resources toward creating an equitable system for voters should remain a priority after the pandemic is over. Moving forward, we cannot disregard voters with disabilities.