One great thing about having stood for elections in GE 2011, is that I got to meet people that I would never have met in my ordinary course of life.
A few days before Polling Day, I got a telephone call from a blind voter living in Mountbatten. He introduced himself to me as RON CHANDRAN-DUDLEY.
Ron called me that day because he wanted to tell me how much he objected to the way blind voters had to cast their votes under current voting procedures. (A more accurate description will be "visually handicapped voters" and these will include those who are totally blind or who suffer from defects of vision, either at birth, or subsequently due to illness or accidents. Not all blind voters can read Braille, e.g. an elderly person who becomes blind as a result of illness. Some have been writing before losing their sight.)
According to Ron, a blind voter like him who is able to hold a pen, would not be able to write or mark his vote on the ballot paper by himself. Instead, he would be required to tell the Officer which candidate (or which party) he wishes to vote for, and the Officer would then write the cross for him on his ballot paper.
Ron said that in other countries, besides getting the Officer to mark his vote for him, blind voters had 2 other options:
1. He is allowed to have a relative or friend of his choice accompany him to the voting booth to mark the ballot paper for him.
2. He can ask for and be provided with a template (or stencil) with windows (openings) matching the places where to mark his vote on the ballot paper.
A template is a simple device which serves to give the blind voter privacy. The Officer would tell the blind voter which box is for which candidate/party, but after knowing that, blind voter can then align the ballot paper against the template and mark his vote on the ballot by himself in private at the voting booth.
I thanked Ron for his feedback. I kept his telephone number as I felt he sounded like an interesting person whom I would like to talk to again.
Subsequently, I found out that Ron is a famous man who has done quite a lot in his lifetime. He used to be the President of the Disabled People's Association and was also the President of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH). Here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0T2twepn6w is a 6 min documentary about him entitled "Asians of the Year". He was going to be a doctor but met with a rugby accident and became blind at age of 19.
On Polling Day, while visiting a Polling Station, one of my Polling Agents (Ong Suping) came up to me to raise her concern about how blind voters were made to cast their votes. I recalled my telephone chat with Ron about this. It just so happened that Lim Biow Chuan was also present at that Polling Station and so the 3 of us (Suping, myself and Biow Chuan) had a brief discussion about this issue. The conclusion of the brief discussion was that present procedures had to be followed.
Subsequently, I asked Suping to write me a note about her concerns as a Polling Agent. Here is her note to me:
When a blind voter comes to the polling station, he/she will be led to the correct queue by either a family member or a presiding officer if no family members are present. The presiding officer will then let the senior presiding officer know that this person is blind and that he/she will need assistance to mark out their vote on the ballot paper. What the senior presiding officer will then do is to announce to the polling agents that this person is blind and that a presiding officer will be assisting him/her in marking their vote on the ballot paper. The presiding officer will then accompany the person to the booth to make their selection.
The problem I am seeing is on 2 levels:
1. What comfort can the blind voter get that the presiding officer is marking the correct ballot box according to his/her wishes? A family member should at least be allowed to be present at the voting booth to witness and be the eyes for the blind voter. At least someone they trust is with them or is marking out the box for them.
2. How do polling agents (who are meant to be there to ensure votes are cast under no undue influence and is fairly conducted) ensure that there is no incongruous activity in this instance?
What the senior presiding officer told me when I raised the point that we have all taken the oath of secrecy and should therefore be allowed to witness this since we are all under oath and it is the job of the polling agent to make sure things are conducted in a fair manner, she told me that presiding officers have taken different oaths allowing them to see a person’s vote while our oath as polling agents only allow us to be present at the polling station and not to see a person’s vote. I am not sure if that really is the case or not. Are there really different oaths?
I don't believe there are clear guidelines today with regards to blind voters as when I asked for a copy of these guidelines saying that this is the way it is supposed to be conducted, the senior presiding officer could not give it to me.
My suggestion is for the blind voter to elect or authorize a person of their choice beforehand to accompany them on polling day to mark the ballot paper with them. Just because they are the minority doesn't mean we don't protect their rights as voters. And as a polling agent I can take greater comfort that the vote is rightly cast since the person marking the vote on behalf has been chosen by the voters themselves.
I must thank Suping for raising her concerns to me.
After receiving Suping’s note, I did some research, and I found out that in April 2011, the current SAVH President wrote to the Elections Department about Singapore’s blind community frustration that it does not get enough privacy when voting. Blind voters would like to have a family member or friend to help them mark their ballots, rather than have an electoral officer do it for them, as has been the case in past elections. However, the Elections Department replied SAVH, saying that under the law, family members are not allowed to help a blind voter mark his ballot as that ‘may compromise the secrecy of the vote cast and may subject the voter to undue influence or pressure’.
After I found out about this, I spoke to Ron. Ron told me that in 1991, he himself wrote to the Elections Department saying the exact same thing, and got the exact same reply from them. He said he is very disappointed that nothing has changed since 1991 till now. There is been no progress in the last 20 years on the rights of blind voters. But meanwhile, other countries were making changes to their voting procedures for blind voters. I checked and found that Ron is right. This is how blind voters cast their votes in UK: http://www.rnib.org.uk/livingwithsightloss/yourrights/Pages/voting.aspx
I also found out that Maruah has also written to the Elections Department on this issue on 5 May 2011.
I thank Ron for helping me to understand how a blind voter feels. A Blind voter does not want the Officer (who is a stranger) to know his vote. SAVH has asked for the blind voter to be allowed to have a family member or friend accompany him to the voting booth. UK and other countries go a step further. They respect the right of the blind voter to vote in PRIVATE. Hence, the voting procedures allow for the provision of a template for the use of blind voters who are able hold a pen.
I do not understand why the Elections Department rejected SAVH’s request for a trusted person to accompany the blind voter to the booth, yet they do not provide the solution of using a template. So the only way for a blind voter to cast his vote, including one who is able to hold a pen and write, is to inform the Officer, a stranger, who he wants to vote for.
I agree with Ron that I would like blind voters to be given a choice of either being assisted by a relative or friend of his choice or alternatively, be given a template so he can mark his vote by himself without assistance and in private.
The next GE is in 5 years’ time. I hope that some progress will be made before then in improving the rights of blind voters.
Meanwhile, the Presidential Elections are just round the corner. I wonder if it is not too much to ask of the Elections Department to tweak the present voting procedures to provide blind voters with the use of a template?
Postscript: On 18 August 2011, the Straits Times reported (at Pg 4 Prime) that for the upcoming Presidential Elections on 27 August 2011, the Elections Dept had produced special stencils to enable blind voters to mark their ballot papers on their own. For the first time in Singapore's election history, blind voters would be able to vote on their own and in privacy. My wish had become a reality. See also this article by Theresa Tan: http://blogs.straitstimes.com/2011/08/19/not-being-blind-to-different-voting-needs/