Background: For more than a decade Scope has been campaigning on the issue of accessible voting for disabled people at elections. As part of this campaigning work, the charity ran a series of three polling-station surveys to assess how easy it was for disabled people to use traditional voting methods.
Polls Apart 3, the survey coinciding with the 2001 general election, found that 69 per cent of polling stations could be inaccessible, making it difficult or impossible for the 8.6 million disabled people in the UK to take part in the democratic process.
During the May 2003 local elections, 59 councils in England piloted several alternative voting methods, including the internet, touch-screen, text message and telephone voting systems. Following the Polls Apart surveys, the Electoral Commission asked Scope to conduct more detailed research into whether the new voting methods made it easier for disabled people to vote than using polling stations.
Aims: Scope set out to work with disabled people to test the various alternative voting methods and discover whether they were more accessible than traditional ones. Through the tests, Scope wanted to ensure that all voting systems, and the electoral process, are accessible to all disabled people and allow them to vote independently and in secret.
How it worked: To assess the new voting alternatives, Scope designed a user-evaluation questionnaire, asking disabled people about their experiences of the new systems.
It then targeted disabled people living in the wards that were piloting the new systems.
User-evaluation forms were posted to volunteers and were also made available on a dedicated Polls Apart web site. The site, designed by specialist communications consultancy The Pollen Shop, allowed volunteers to input their results online and receive campaign information.
Appeals were sent to Scope's 800-strong campaign network, local disability groups and local authorities to enlist people to survey the systems. Media coverage in regional papers was also instrumental in getting people to take part before the elections. An article on BBC News Online had a link to the campaign web site.
Three focus groups, each consisting of 10 disabled people, were then arranged in voting pilot areas to evaluate the accessibility for each system from a user's perspective on polling day.
More than 500 user-evaluation forms were completed, and these findings were compiled alongside Scope's own technical assessments of the systems to produce a report advising the Electoral Commission on the successes and weaknesses of the voting pilots.
Copies of the report were also sent to local authorities.
Results: The survey results were mixed. Voting via digital TV was more accessible than previously thought, but kiosk voting was confusing and inflexible. Scope found that postal voting, although popular, is still largely inaccessible to people with visual or co-ordination impairments.
The campaign ran smoothly, and the coverage on BBC news online was particularly beneficial.
Scope now plans to take Polls Apart 2003 to the annual party political conferences this autumn to further spread the message about accessible elections.
"We're really pleased to have got involved in evaluating the accessibility of the e-voting pilots so early in their development," said Giles Roddy, Scope's parliamentary officer. "Working now to make new voting methods accessible from the start will mean that, in the future, the question of whether disabled people are able to cast their vote using these systems just won't be an issue."
Scope will continue to work with the Electoral Commission to advise upon and improve standards around voting accessibility and ensure disabled people's needs are fully considered from the outset when developing and introducing any new voting methods.