With many legal and technical barriers still in place across the EU, not a single Member State has ensured that elections are accessible to all, an EESC report finds
On 20 March, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) issued an information report presenting the full state of play when it comes to the right of persons with disabilities to vote in the European Parliament elections.
The report entitled "Real rights of persons with disabilities to vote in EP elections" shows that despite many binding legal documents protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in the EU, millions of them will not be able or allowed to cast their votes this spring, or may at least have difficulties to do so.
Its author, Polish member Krzysztof Pater said, "This report presents an ugly face of Europe – the reality which is far away from our expectations, from basic international legal acts and political declarations."
Referring to the European Parliament's recently launched election campaign and its slogan "This Time I'm Voting", Mr Pater said, "It seems that for decision-makers and the media, the only problem is how to motivate EU citizens to vote. And many citizens with disabilities can only say – once again I am not able to vote due to technical barriers still existing in my country. Or once again I am not allowed to vote under the national law of my country."
According to the report, millions of voters will be deterred by technical barriers at polling stations which do not take into account the needs resulting from their various types of disability.
On top of this, it is estimated that some 800 000 EU citizens suffering from mental health problems or with an intellectual disability will be deprived of their right to vote on account of national rules that are in force in 16 Member States, which the EESC finds particularly worrisome.
In nine EU countries, such persons automatically lose their right to vote when their legal capacity is reduced or when they have a guardian appointed. Under seven national laws, their voting ability is individually assessed by either courts or medical boards.
The procedures relating to revoking of voting rights vary between Member States substantially. While in some they are aimed only at patients in a severe medical condition and unable to make any contact with other people, in others thousands of people must go through a complicated process which sometimes even includes a general knowledge test with questions about physics or history (such as "What is the speed of light?" or "Who was Catherine the Great?").
The figures vary too – only around 100 people are unable to exercise their right to vote in Portugal, whereas in Germany and Poland their number rises to 82 000 and 90 000 people respectively.
As for technical barriers, the question of adapting polling stations is dealt with very differently by Member States. Six countries have no rules on making polling stations accessible to persons with disabilities. And whereas eleven apply the general principle that all polling stations must be adapted, this accessibility is understood rather narrowly in practice.
"Public authorities often define a polling station as 'accessible' only if a wheelchair user can enter it, overlooking the needs of persons with many other types of disability. The vast majority of polling stations in the EU are not fully adapted to the needs of persons with different types of disability," Mr Pater said.
In as many as 18 Member States, blind voters have no way of voting independently. In eight Member States, there are no alternative forms of voting, such as postal voting, electronic voting or voting by mobile ballot box. This means that anyone physically unable to come to the polling station will not be able to cast their ballots. In 12 countries, national rules do not allow voters to change polling stations to a more suitable one if the latter is not assigned to them based on their place of residence.
But despite painting a bleak picture, the report does give reason for hope. It lists 200 examples of good practices and positive solutions that can be found in each Member State.
For example, Romania allows voters to make a mark next to a candidate's name using a stamp obtained from the electoral commission. In Lithuania, authorities provide an online map identifying polling stations best suited to voters with reduced mobility. All citizens in Estonia can vote electronically. Voters in Denmark have the option to vote early, from two days to three weeks in advance at designated polling stations.
The report also lists more recent positive developments in countries, such as moves towards the abolition of automatic deprivation of voting rights of all citizens placed under guardianship.
At the plenary session on Wednesday, EESC members voted that the report should be distributed to EU institutions, national governments as well as to NGOs representing persons with disabilities or focusing on human rights.
Mr Pater said the purpose of the report was not to criticise any of the EU countries. The EESC hoped that, with its positive examples, it would help decision-makers at both the EU and national level to draw up comprehensive solutions to remove legal and technical barriers preventing this significant group of EU citizens from exercising their fundamental rights. It should also be of use to NGOs which fight for their voting rights at the national level.
"If the best practices from all the countries were implemented, an ideal system would emerge in which every EU citizen with disabilities would not only enjoy full voting rights, but would also be able to choose the most convenient way to cast his or her vote," he maintained.
"I believe that this report will help create the rules guaranteeing that not a single EU citizen will be deprived of their right to vote in the 2024 European Parliament elections," Mr Pater concluded.
The report was compiled on the basis of surveys conducted between 2016 and late 2018 in all EU Member States, except the UK. The information it includes was mostly provided by public authorities responsible for the election process and by NGOs representing or supporting persons with disabilities, but also by MEPs and representatives of the European Disability Forum.