As the European Commission is about to unveil the EU’s new strategy on the rights of people with disabilities for the next decade, Krzysztof Pater writes on one of the areas where discrimination is still acute – the right to vote, which many people enjoy With disabilities effectively denied disabilities across Europe.
Krzysztof Pater is a Polish member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).
It seems incredible and outrageous that in what is now the EU territory the last ban on women’s suffrage was not lifted until 1976, exactly 70 years after Finland became the first of today’s member states to admit women to its polling stations.
Yet few seem to turn an eyelid that millions of EU citizens are now being denied this right simply because they have some kind of disability.
In eight Member States you cannot vote for your candidate in the European elections or any other election unless you are in good health and can physically come to the voting booth.
If you are blind you cannot vote in 18 Member States without support. If your disability prevents you from using your hands, nine countries where you choose your candidate will not allow you to vote by putting their party’s name or identification number on your ballot.
These numbers are not accidental – between 2016 and the end of 2018 I conducted surveys in 27 Member States detailing all the restrictions and barriers for voters with disabilities. I received information from a variety of sources, including government election commissions and disability organizations.
At the end of my research, I came to the conclusion that because of these legal and technical barriers, no single EU country can guarantee that elections are fully accessible to all.
The results of my research were published in the report entitled “The real right to vote for people with disabilities in European elections”, which was adopted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) two months before the European elections in May 2019.
My results were confirmed shortly afterwards by election reports from the media and civil society organizations.
Due to some positive changes in Germany and France immediately before the EP elections, the original number of people excluded from voting due to mental health problems or intellectual disabilities was halved, but remained high at 400,000 who enjoyed this right in up to 14 EU countries could not exercise.
Those who were unable to cast their ballots due to technical or organizational precautions were counted in the millions.
The situation will not improve on its own and, if legal changes are not made to remove these barriers, the number of citizens who may be denied this right will steadily increase as the proportion of people with disabilities is part of the rapidly aging population EU population increases by 10% on average every six years one percent.
How is it possible that in the 21st century so many citizens cannot or will not vote just because they have a disability and policymakers are doing so little to change that? The EESC believes that such discrimination is unacceptable and contrary to fundamental EU values, the Treaty and important international legal and political acts.
Urgent action is needed to ensure that all people with disabilities have a real right to vote in the next EP elections in 2024.
On December 2, 2020, on the eve of International Disability Day, the EESC adopted an opinion following my 2019 report and calls on the EP, the Council of the EU and the Member States to urgently change the EU in 1976 Electoral law.
In particular, we ask for clarification of the principles of universality, secrecy and directness in the legal text.
We demand that the law contain a declaration that no EU citizen should be deprived of the right to vote in EP elections because of a disability or health condition based on national law.
Such a declaration will clarify the principle of universal suffrage in law and make it impossible for people with disabilities to vote differently from one country to another, which is now the case.
For example, a bedridden person has the right to vote by mail, mobile ballot box or the Internet if they live in one country, while if the same person currently lives in another country, they cannot vote at all.
In order to clarify the principles of directness and secrecy mentioned in the law, we propose the introduction of a series of standards to ensure that all people with disabilities, regardless of the nature of their disability, can vote without assistance and in secret.
These standards include, among other things, the establishment of necessary technical precautions to ensure unsupported voting for people with disabilities who require significant support – for example for people who are deaf, blind, visually impaired or with limited manual dexterity.
They plan to change national regulations that will continue to prevent citizens from changing their designated polling station to one that is suitable for their disability. This is currently not possible in 12 EU countries.
As an EU advisory body, the EESC can only focus on EU elections, but changes to EU electoral law would certainly be reflected in national rules for local or national elections.
The EESC believes that the EU could use the positive experience of many countries to implement the proposed solutions. My 2019 report lists up to 200 best practices from all Member States. We believe we will have EP elections in 2024, which are fully open to all, if they are all put together and all bad practices are dropped.
The right to vote is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of European democracy. But above all it is about human dignity. Why do we keep denying it to so many of us?