Search

General election 2024

RNIB calls to end the ‘scandal’ that means blind people can’t vote in secret

Only 13% of blind people felt they could vote independently in the 2019 general election despite secret voting being the law for 150 years, the charity said

Stock image showing a woman’s hand filling in a postal ballot / voting form
Getty/Laurence Dutton

Blind and partially sighted people are being denied democracy due to an inability to vote without assistance, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has said.

The charity is calling for the 2024 general election to be the last election where this is the case.

An open letter to the next prime minister, which has been signed by celebrities including former England footballer Michael Owen, cyclist Lora Fachie, and journalist and disability campaigner Lucy Edwards, emphasises that “Voting is a fundamental right and part of living in a democratic society. More than 150 years after the right to vote in secret became law, blind and partially sighted people are still having to share their vote. This is a scandal.”

The RNIB’s Turned Out report found that only 13% of blind people felt they could vote independently and in secret in the 2019 general election.

Most had to be assisted by a companion or polling staff member, meaning they could not make their vote confidential.

Anna Tylor, RNIB’s chair of trustees, said that the legal right to vote in secret has been in place for over 150 years, “but this right still isn’t afforded to many of the two million blind and partially sighted people like me who face significant barriers to voting independently.”

Tylor noted that polling stations are required to have a tactile voting device and large print copy of the ballot paper for reference, but that “voting remains a fundamentally visual exercise.”

Although voting solutions with audio elements and those that combine audio and tactile elements do exist, they are not widely available, Tylor said, adding that people with sight loss have to proactively request them. It is then up to local electoral officials whether they can obtain them.

“We’ve heard from blind and partially sighted people that they have often had to make their choices out loud, robbing them of their secret vote, leading to discomfort and uncertainty about whether their vote was cast as intended,” Tylor said.

She noted that 42% of blind respondents to RNIB’s Turned Out survey said they had been dissatisfied with their experience of voting at the 2019 general election.

87%

of people surveyed agree it’s important everyone should have the right to vote in secret 

86%

say it’s important that every polling station should have the right equipment to ensure blind and partially sighted people can vote in secret 

81%

agree that everyone should be able to vote without assistance from another person 

63%

say it’s unfair that blind and partially sighted people often have to share their vote with someone else

61%

of blind people had to get another person to help them to vote at the polling station at the 2019 general election

46%

of blind and partially sighted people are satisfied with their experience of voting

Source: RNIB’s February 2022 YouGov survey of 1800 people aged over 18, and the charity’s Turned Out report, conducted after the 2019 UK general election

Combined audio and tactile devices are mentioned in guidance as possible voting equipment but are not part of the minimum standard and are only provided upon request, the RNIB said, with many blind and partially sighted people unaware that they exist.

The minimum standard of equipment in polling stations is largely the same as in 2019, the charity said, adding that at the time a judge called existing provisions “a parody of the electoral process.”

The RNIB has asked electoral officials whether they can provide audio devices to blind voters and has had confirmation that they will not be widely available at the general election on 4 July, Tylor explained, “which will mean yet again voters having to share their vote.”

“We are urging the next government to change this – make voting accessible so blind and partially sighted people, like me, can finally cast our vote independently and in secret,” she said.

The open letter also emphasises the importance of a blind or partially sighted person being able to “turn up to their polling station on the day and vote independently, without having to make requests themselves in advance, just like anyone else.”

Michael Owen, whose son James has Stargardt disease, said: “James turned 18 this year and so will be eligible to vote in the upcoming general election. Yet the only way he will be able to do so is if someone goes into the voting booth with him and reads out the names on the polling slip. This is unacceptable and unnecessary in a world where technologies exist to allow people with sight loss to vote in secret.”

This experience is why he has signed the open letter, Owen said.

He added: “Voting independently is a hard-fought personal right, and you feel that all the more keenly when one of your family is denied it.”

Read the RNIB’s open letter to the next prime minister here.