Blind voters will get secret ballot, says IEC

2011-04-11 10:24

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) says special equipment will be in place at all voting stations to allow blind people to cast their vote in private in next month’s local government election.

“Yes, each voting station will have a Braille template for ballot papers,” IEC chief communication officer Kate Bapela told Sapa.

The “template” referred to is a frame with a series of apertures on the right hand side that fits over the blocks on a ballot paper. It allows blind or partially-sighted people to make a cross on the ballot without assistance.

Being able to cast a secret ballot is a fundamental right in most modern democratic systems. South Africa’s Constitution spells it out: “Every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections... and to do so in secret.”

There was concern the IEC was not going to have the templates ready in time for the tens of thousands of blind and partially-sighted citizens who will head to the polls on May 18.

The commission’s chief electoral officer, Pansy Tlakula, told MPs at a parliamentary committee briefing last month that finding a manufacturer for the templates was proving a challenge.

Bapela said a provision of the Municipal Electoral Act allowing blind and partially-sighted voters to take another adult person, 18 or older, into the voting booth with them to help them make their cross, remained in place.

While this system does not perturb some – who are planning to take a trusted family member or friend along with them on election day – others believe it denies them their right to a secret vote.

Alice January, a resident at the Institute for the Blind in the Wineland’s town of Worcester, told Sapa that political privacy was important to blind people.

“We also want to go and secretly make our cross, and not have to tell someone else: ‘Please make my cross here’,” she said.

Up-to-date information on the number of blind or partially-sighted people in South Africa is hard to come by.

According to 2001 figures, provided by the institute, five percent of the population at that time (about 2.3 million people) were disabled, of whom about a third had a sight disability.

January, who was born blind, is one of about 500 people living at the institute. Earlier this year, the IEC had flown her to Pretoria to participate in a workshop on the coming election.

“We told them we had a problem with the elections because we have to ask another person to please come and help us make our cross. I have to tell someone else which party I’m voting for. This is not respecting our privacy.

“We want the same privilege everyone else has; we also want to secretly make our cross, and not have to tell someone else where to make it for us.”

The IEC had shown participants at the workshop the Braille template, but January said she doubted it would be available on May 18.

“I have my doubts it will be ready in time for the local government election; it might be ready for the next national election. [If not], we’re going to have to take a sighted person with us on May 18,” she said.

She called on government to make better provision for blind and partially-sighted people.

“Make provision for us. This template, for instance, why can’t government subsidise this thing? You want our vote? Stick your money where your mouth is!” she said.

Resident Ray Aukett, who works as the institute’s switchboard operator, said the template was ideal.

“[It is] an absolutely fantastic way of having a secret vote... A secret vote for a blind person – he can vote for himself! With other methods, somebody always knows exactly what you do.”

Aukett (67) who told Sapa he had not missed an election since he was 18, said he had experienced problems voting in the past, with election officers insisting they accompany him into the voting booth to help him cast his ballot.

“You still get it, unfortunately. Instead of letting me choose who I want with me, you get some of these blokes trying to force themselves onto you.”

Aukett said he hoped the template would be available when he went to vote.

“A template is the real answer to a secret vote for blind people.”

He dismissed the notion of using Braille on special ballot papers.

“The Braille ballot paper should be thrown out of the window as far as I’m concerned because that’s not a secret vote.

Then they know you’re a blind person that voted.

“And while they wouldn’t know who voted for which party individually, they could say the blind are voting for [a certain] party, or the blind are voting for [another] party,” he observed.

Aukett also noted that government was not doing enough for blind people, particularly when it came to employment.
“[A total of] 97% of blind people are unemployed today,” he said.

This figure was confirmed by the institute’s CEO, Freddie Botha.

“Ninety-seven out of a hundred blind people are unemployed. If it wasn’t for places like this institute, the figure would be higher.”

He said the government had set employers a target of two percent disabled in the workforce, but the actual figure being achieved was 0.16%.

When it came to employing disabled people, the blind were at the back of the queue.

Government departments themselves were lagging behind.

“That is a disgrace. If you ask government departments about the number of disabled people they employ, the information is not readily available. They know they’re not doing their job with regard to that,” Botha said.

The question of employment was a recurring election issue among the institute residents who spoke to Sapa.

Sharon Noble (30) who has been blind since birth, said it would be nice to have government actually do something for blind people.

“There are still a lot of blind and partially-sighted people who sit without work. Can’t they do something about that?

“Before I came here, I used to struggle to find work. That’s why I’m actually here at the institute, because I couldn’t get any work,” she said.

Noble has been at the institute for four years.

Resident Johan Steyn, blind for the past 11 years, said many employers had the wrong idea about blind people.

“They get the idea that because a person is blind, a certain piece has been cut out of their brain, and they can’t think. But some blind people have a high IQ and are very intelligent. There is so much they can do.”

Steyn, who is partially sighted, said his wife would help him to vote on May 18.

Resident Michael Koto, also blind from birth, said he planned to ask one of the institute’s staff to accompany him to the polling station.

“The matrons always help us,” he told Sapa.

David Geyer, one of about 40 people at the institute who is both blind and deaf, also plans to visit the polls on election day.

He will be accompanied by his wife, Marina, through who he communicates by means of finger spelling, and placing his thumb against her lips in order to “read” what she tells him.

“He’s been voting since I met him and we don’t have any problems. I tell him all the news, so he doesn’t have an excuse to say he doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said.

A failure by the IEC to provide templates for the blind at all voting stations on May 18 would put the country at odds with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, to which South Africa is a signatory.

The convention requires, among other things, that states recognise the right of disabled people to cast their vote in an election by secret ballot.

A total of 23.5 million people have registered to vote on May 18, at just more than 20 000 voting stations around the country.

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