I propose to take Questions Nos. 1563 to 1566, inclusive, together.
I am aware of the National Disability Authority Report Voting Trials for Voters with Sight Loss, published in January 2015. The Authority noted that the results of the trials did not produce a clear recommendation for a secure voting method that is likely to meet the needs of most voters with sight loss. However, the Authority recommended that ballot paper templates be trialed at a future referendum where voters have a simple ‘yes/no’ choice, and that the results be monitored and evaluated.
Regulations were subsequently made in 2016 requiring ballot paper templates to be available at future referendums in order to facilitate voters who are blind or vision impaired. Since the making of the regulations, there have been two referendums and the feedback from the blind and vision impaired community on the efficacy of the template has been generally positive. In order to ensure the availability of the referendum templates at all polling stations over the two referendums, 12,000 templates were provided at a cost of €67,518.
Encouraged by the positive feedback on the referendum ballot paper template, further Regulations were made in 2018 requiring a ballot paper template to be available at future Presidential Elections, including the October 2018 election. A total of 8,000 Presidential ballot paper templates were provided at a cost of €56,365.
Estimates, based on returns received from returning officers, indicate that some 1,000 templates were used at the May 2018 referendum and some 750 templates at the October 2018 polls.
In December 2018, I established a Working Group on Voting Accessibility chaired by my Department with representation from the National Disability Authority, the Disability Federation of Ireland, the Irish Wheelchair Association, the National Council for the Blind, the Blind Legal Alliance and Pakflatt – the company that tendered successfully for the provision of ballot paper templates in Ireland. I asked the Group to develop ballot paper templates that could be used at the 2019 European Parliament and Local Elections. I am pleased to say that the Working Group was successful in this endeavour, resulting in ballot paper templates now being available for the first time at the European Parliament and Local Elections scheduled for 24 May 2019. The template will also service requirements at any future Dáil elections and I am currently preparing regulations that will require the availability of ballot paper templates at all future elections.
The existing stock of referendum templates is being used in relation to the referendum and plebiscites being held on 24 May 2019. Therefore, there are no additional costs in 2019 in respect of templates used for these polls. The cost of providing templates in 2019 for the European Parliament, Local Elections and any future elections has yet to be finalised.
The ballot paper template at the forthcoming elections consists of raised numbering and corresponding braille to assist the voter in identifying the openings on the template that correspond to the voter preference boxes for the candidates on the ballot paper to which it will be attached. It will operate in conjunction with a ‘freephone - 1800’ number. Based on the interaction between the tactile features of the template and the information provided on the ‘freephone’ number, the voter can mark the ballot paper with their voting preferences (1, 2, 3 etc.). The candidate information on the ‘freephone’ number can be accessed as often as required in advance of polling day and again on polling day at the polling station with a mobile phone, if required.
Another option open to voters with the relevant screen reading technology (eg on their phones, tablets or laptops) is to familiarise themselves with the candidates standing in their European Parliament constituency or local electoral area by accessing the relevant ‘Notice of Poll’ or ‘candidate details’ section on the relevant website.
Detailed instructions on the use of the template have been provided to Returning Officers and Presiding Officers. These instructions include the need to provide in each polling station an appropriate table and chair, located in such a position as to ensure secrecy in voting, at which electors with vision impairment and other electors such as wheelchair users and persons with a physical disability or the elderly can mark their ballot papers, if they find it more convenient.
The availability of templates for use by voters who are blind or vision impaired at the forthcoming European Parliament and Local Elections and details of how they will operate are set out on my Department’s website. Appropriate reference is also made to their availability, with links to the Department’s website, on the websites of the National Disability Authority, the Disability Federation of Ireland and the National Council for the Blind (NCBI). The NCBI provide a facility whereby the templates can be tried out and a demonstration provided in each of their offices nationwide.
My Department’s Memorandum for the Guidance of Local Authority Returning Officers in relation to the conduct of the Local Elections provides that information regarding the ‘freephone’ facility and the candidates standing for election in each Local Electoral Area should be displayed on the local authority’s website. Similarly, in the case of the European Parliament Elections, the relevant returning officers have been advised to place similar information on any website they maintain in their capacity as returning officers.