Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

Accessible Democracy and Electronic Voting in the Republic of Ireland

Academic journal article Information Technology and Disabilities

Accessible Democracy and Electronic Voting in the Republic of Ireland

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

If everything had gone according to plan for the Fianna Fail (political party) Government of the Republic of Ireland, the 2004 local and European elections, as well as voting on the constitutional referendum, would have been the country's first all-electronic elections. However, just six weeks before voters went to the polls, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government in the Irish Parliament, Martin Cullen TD, was forced to suspend the introduction of e-voting and revert to the traditional paper-based ballot (Cullen, 2004). Total procurement costs for the Nedap/Powervote system have been estimated at 52m [euro] ($69.5m) (Irish Independent, 2004), and the voting machines will not be redeployed until 2007 at the earliest, and then only in tandem with other methods of voting. The Government's decision followed the findings of the Independent Commission on Electronic Voting, which objected to the introduction of the voting machines on the grounds that the proposed system compromised accuracy and secrecy (CEV, 2004).

It is this issue of secrecy which has implications for disabled people in Ireland: the Commission observed that there was reduced voting secrecy for persons with certain disabilities, so accessibility was compromised (CEV, 2004). However, accessibility was not a concern of the Government until well after electronic voting pilots had been undertaken in 2002; the trials revealed that the new system was inaccessible to many disabled voters. In response to submissions from interest groups, minor changes were made: font sizes on the screens were enlarged, for example, but other opportunities were missed. The machines are equipped with a port to convert voter selections to audio output, but this was not followed through by the Government. The information literature produced to inform the electorate only addressed wheelchair users (who were told that the system was accessible), the visually impaired (who were told that their needs would be considered in the future), and the elderly (who were told that the elderly in other countries were satisfied with the implementation) (Department of the Environment and Local Government, 20032, 2003b). It failed to recognise the range of disabilities which can restrict full and equal participation in democracy; it also failed to recognise that people can have multiple disabilities. The online demonstration of the new procedure failed to achieve even minimum compliance with the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines (WAI, 2004).

Accessibility is not protected by law in the Republic of Ireland: there is no legislation to provide disabled people with any legal guarantee of services, there is no law relating to access and no means of redress when disabled people's rights are ignored; in short, there is no rights-based domestic legislation. Planned legislation in the form of the Disability Bill 2001 should have gone some way towards enforcing accessibility, but the bill was withdrawn by the Government in 2002, and no further progress seems to be imminent. This is in contrast to the situation with Ireland's nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom. The UK has long-standing and recently updated legislation to protect the rights of disabled people with respect to accessible democracy. (There are three main Acts with which all electronic voting initiatives must comply.)

This paper explores how, in the absence of legislation to enforce compliance, accessibility issues have not been a major feature of the Irish Government's electronic voting initiative. Comparisons are drawn with the UK Government's initiatives which are based on phased multi-channel elections, offering the electorate a range of methods for voting, all of which must comply with relevant legislation. By failing to take into account the needs of an estimated 8.3% of the population of the Republic of Ireland (Central Statistics Office, 2004), the Government's e-voting implementation is at the very least no more democratic than the existing manual ballot, and at worst an additional barrier to full and equal participation in the electoral process. …

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