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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON ELECTORAL MATTERS
25/07/2005
Conduct of the 2004 federal election and matters related thereto

CHAIR —I welcome to today’s hearing Mr Tony Clark, from the merged organisation incorporating the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales, Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, Vision Australia Foundation and the National Information Library Service. We have received your submission, which has been numbered 54 and authorised for publication. Are there any corrections or amendments you would like to make?

Mr Clark —No, thank you. I am very pleased to announce that the new name of the organisation I represent is Vision Australia, which was determined late last week.

CHAIR —I also welcome to today’s hearing Ms Christine Dodds and Ms Joan Smith from Guide Dogs Victoria. The committee has received your submission, which is numbered 16 and has been authorised for publication. Are there any corrections or amendments you would like to make?

Ms Dodds —No, thank you.

CHAIR —On behalf of each organisation, I invite you to make a short opening statement and then we will move to questions. We want to hear from you about the issues of concern.

Mr Clark —Mr Chairman, I thank you and the committee for the opportunity to present today regarding the barriers that currently exist for those who are blind or vision impaired within our current democratic system, and particularly the electoral system as it now stands. To basically cast a formal vote at this point in time, you are required to fill it in on the standard print ballot paper. For those who cannot see or read that ballot paper, they are unable to do so independently. Legislation is inherently discriminatory as it now stands as it requires a formal vote to be filled out on a printed ballot paper. Despite the fact that a number of avenues currently exist, such as pre-poll voting, postal voting and assisted voting, all still require an individual to fill out the standard print ballot paper; there are no other options. As you will note from our submission, we strongly encourage the committee to consider changing the legislation so that individuals who are blind or vision impaired can actually participate. Given that the electoral process is not just related to casting a vote but also to a number of issues such as finding out about electoral rights, democracy and political based information, a much wider range of barriers currently exist.

We strongly encourage the committee to consider three things: first, to change the legislation, as already indicated; secondly, to encourage and support the Australian Electoral Commission in its efforts to educate Australians, particularly Australians who have needs for an alternative to print based information, which is currently the system; and, thirdly, to encourage and provide information and perhaps education and support to political parties to provide their information regarding their political platforms, so again people can make informed decisions. While individuals cannot access information, they cannot make an informed decision. While that information is unavailable, individuals cannot participate equally within the democratic process. We encourage the committee to give great consideration to those three issues as it moves forward. We also believe that the opportunity to be innovative within the world is now present with the advent of electronic voting. Thank you very much.

CHAIR —Ms Dodds or Ms Smith, would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Dodds —Just as an introduction, Guide Dogs Victoria is a not-for-profit organisation that provides a full range of mobility skills for people with a vision impairment, aged five to 95, and all of our services are provided completely free of charge. Part of our mission is to equip vision impaired people in a way that enhances their independence and freedom so they can enjoy equal rights and responsibilities in the community. We believe that the failure to provide the opportunity for secret voting infringes on this sector of the population’s rights and on their ability to fulfil their responsibilities. We believe that it is discriminatory that people with vision impairment cannot cast their vote privately or independently verify their vote. It appears an unjustifiable anomaly that people with a vision impairment can arrange personal, banking and other business matters through electronic communications, but they must still rely on another person’s assistance to vote. Electronically assisted voting can address the needs of all those who are disadvantaged by the current pencil/pen on paper method of voting, including all those living with a vision impairment and the thousands of people with English as a second language. The solution of electronically assisted voting seems entirely feasible and should be achievable in time for the next federal election. Previous concerns about the security of electronic voting can be assuaged as people can cast their votes using computers in polling booths. Printed ballot papers can still be generated, deposited in a ballot box and counted in the traditional way.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. We might start with some questions. If a question is directed to one witness group and the other wants to add something, please do so. I know that you have a common view on some things, but if there is anything in particular from the Guide Dogs’ point of view that you wish to add, please do so. I am particularly interested in the overseas experience and the timelines; who do you think is world’s best practice at the moment, and how long has that been occurring with respect to services?

Mr Clark —Based on our research, that would probably be the United Kingdom. Certainly a range of things have been done in the United States, but there have been issues. A lot of the electronic voting that has been done, of which I am sure your committee is aware, is touch screen only, which is wonderful, but you also have to be able to see the screen to be able to know what you are pressing. Also there are various related programming issues that have caused all sorts of troubles. The United Kingdom is also trialling a range of options, including voting via SMS and other ways, such as by telephone, because the reality is that accessibility relates to available options, unlike in Australia currently, where there is just one option.

Senator MASON —Currently, how do blind or visually impaired people vote? What is the usual process?

Mr Clark —You generally have somebody with you, either a friend or a family member, and you let them know your choices and they fill in the ballot paper, and either you put it in the box or they put it in for you.

Mr MELHAM —Or an electoral official.

Mr Clark —If there is no-one of assistance, an electoral official, but I would hazard a guess that a lot of people who do not have anybody to help them go to a voting centre probably will not vote, because it would be a bit difficult.

Senator MASON —Okay, so the problem is first that the vote is not private. For example, you might say, ‘I vote for X party’ and you follow their ticket, and someone does it on your behalf, is that right?

Mr Clark —Yes, that would be correct.

Senator MASON —So the vote is not private; and, secondly, if you are blind or vision impaired you may not be able to verify whether in fact your instructions have been followed?

Mr Clark —Yes, that is absolutely correct. The other thing is that you are making a decision but you often do not have the information that everybody else has about what those parties stand for, such as the various information that is passed out at the time of voting et cetera.

Ms Dodds —As an example of how things can go wrong, at the last election a vision impaired friend of mine in New South Wales wanted to cast a vote for a certain party, and there was another party with a similar name—there were several of the same words in the party’s name—and the person who was assisting them to vote cast the wrong vote. They only found out afterwards, as they were unable to look at the piece of paper and see that the correct vote had been cast.

Senator MASON —They could not verify that their instructions had been accorded with?

Ms Dodds —Exactly.

Senator MASON —We have two problems: one is the privacy of the vote and the second is the verification of the vote. Mr Clark, in response to a question from the Chairman, you spoke about overseas practice. Would the technology you mentioned in the United Kingdom answer those two issues of privacy and verification?

Mr Clark —Yes. It depends on which one you are employing, but with the electronic voting that uses speech technology, that would absolutely be the case.

Senator MASON —How does that work?

Mr Clark —An individual has a range of options when using an electronic voting machine. The system is set up in such a way that you can either use a touch screen or a keyboard. So it can be done visually, or it has a set of headphones. When you put the headphones on, there is a loop of instructions which explain the simple keyboard—it is a standard numeric keyboard.

Senator MASON —Would you need braille?

Mr Clark —No, not really. You need it raised, it needs to be tactile.

Senator MASON —Right.

Mr Clark —Many people are of the view that you need numbers. I am getting a bit off track here, but I will use the ATMs as an example. They have braille numbers, which is fine, but then you have to select cheque, savings or whatever—and how on earth do you know which one is which? So in reality the braille numbers are fairly meaningless from that point of view. So this system uses a keypad. It will read through all the various things, and it will read out exactly what is on the ballot paper. The ones that are currently available will not give any additional information. You make your selection, and it then repeats your selection. For example, you press ‘Enter’; it will then say, ‘The vote you have cast is’—and then it will read it through in your presence.

Senator MASON —So it is being verified?

Mr Clark —Absolutely, it is being verified, and then you have to press ‘Enter’ again or whatever mechanism is employed by that particular system to actually formally cast that vote.

Mr MELHAM —I know it is probably not satisfactory, but are the postal voting provisions the best way to go in terms of allowing you to fulfil what you want to fulfil? It will require assistance, but if you were able to be put on a list of registered postal voters your ballot would be automatically posted to your home. In my electorate, for instance, there is a vision impaired person who receives a postal ballot, but if she cannot get a friend to assist her, she will ring the office seeking assistance. There is a dependence on others, I know, but in the privacy of your own home you would be much more in control of the casting of your ballot than having to attend on election day with a friend or seeking the assistance of an electoral officer.

Ms Dodds —I think the issue is that people with a vision impairment should have every right that sighted people have, and that includes the right to vote independently and the right to verify their vote independently. Some people may vote differently from their spouse—

Mr MELHAM —I understand that.

Ms Dodds —and that raises issues there.

Mr MELHAM —I am trying to come to a system that is workable, transparent and tries to preserve the integrity of your vote—all of those things. It may well be that particular ballot papers will need to be sent to you—I do not know. I am trying to flesh out a workable system.

Mr Clark —I agree with Chris there, from the point of view that it does not resolve the issue of a secret vote. Postal voting for some people, with a broad range of disabilities, is a very, very good option because they are housebound. For others, however, that is not the case. There are various options that would assist various people. For example, large print ballot papers would help a certain proportion of the community, but that would require legislative change.

Mr MELHAM —That is what I am thinking. If you have those large print ballot papers that can be part of a postal ballot that is sent out to you, could that overcome some of the problems?

Mr Clark —Yes, it overcomes some of the problems to a point, and I speak from a personal point of view and also from that of a lot of my colleagues: we just like going to the voting place. It is just a good social activity. You get your sausages and go to the cake stall and all that sort of thing. While it may assist some, I certainly think it is a bit of a bandaid solution.

Ms Dodds —I think Tony hit the nail on the head earlier when he was talking about the United Kingdom’s experience in that they offered a choice. Not all vision impaired people are able to read braille, for instance, so braille would not be a blanket solution. People’s vision varies dramatically; some may be able to read large print and some may not, so what you have suggested, as Tony said, may suit some people but not all.

Mr MELHAM —But what I am trying to do is come up with some options within the existing framework that we might be able to get the Electoral Commission to implement so that you can then exercise the option. Not everyone has to exercise the option of having a postal vote, in braille, or whatever it is.

Mr Clark —A large print version would help some. I would hate to see what an upper house tablecloth would look like—it would have to come out in A1 or something, I suspect. That may assist some, but it is certainly not what I would call a wide solution.

Mr MELHAM —What is your preferred solution?

Mr Clark —The preferred solution is electronic. When I say that, I think it is important to differentiate between online versus offline voting. I know that there is an awful lot of concerns when it comes to online voting regarding the ability to hack in, but you can actually have a closed system. From my perspective as a user, what I want to be able to do is cast a vote. I want to be able to sit down, cast a vote independently and verify it. There is nothing stopping you from printing out a ballot paper and putting it in the system as per any other ballot paper. It is non-traceable and is counted in the same way. Obviously there are significant issues with online voting. Electronic voting gives the greatest amount of flexibility to be able to adjust and adapt a system to work with as many people as possible. For example, electronic will also give the opportunity to enlarge the screen, to change the colours, and to have it talk out to you. It could even be set up to incorporate a refreshable braille display. So somebody could bring their own braille display, hook up to it and access voting that way.

Senator MURRAY —The government will be faced with, as we are, two propositions: one is to improve what we have at present, and one is to introduce a new system of voting. Electronic voting has not been introduced for the community at large. Let us focus on what we have at present, if the government decided to stay with that and not go to electronic voting. The system tries to deal with a large number of circumstances, such as pre-poll, declaration votes, postal votes, ordinary voting on the day, and so on. Also there is assisted voting for people who, for one reason or another, cannot vote. If the cost for the policy surrounding the introduction of electronic voting was not to be received favourably by government, it would seem to me that the next best way in which the parliament could ask that sight impaired people be assisted would in fact be braille voting documents.

Now, that could either just cover one category—that is, the postal category— or it could also include braille documents in the polling booth itself. Thus, if you went into the booth, you would be able to vote on your own account, provided you could read braille. What is your reaction to that view, that if electronic voting is not established—and I have clearly understood it is your favoured option—the braille option should be added to what is provided at present?

Ms Smith —It would not be an option for a high percentage of vision impaired people. Tony may have the percentages, but not all vision impaired people know braille. In fact, a high percentage of the vision impaired people whom I know, do not know or use braille. Therefore you would only be addressing a certain few vision impaired people.

Senator MURRAY —Do you have any documentation? We are told that the RBS.RVIB.VAF have 30,000 blind or vision impaired people registered with them. Do you know how many of those are braille users?

Mr Clark —There have been no quantitative studies to determine that. It is very important to understand that braille is used predominantly by people who are blind either from birth or at a very early age. They need it from an educational point of view, because the only way you will learn to spell is through braille. People who lose their sight at a later age, which is the vast bulk of people, typically do not learn to read braille. There are two grades of braille: grade 1 and grade 2, just to add complexities to things. Grade 1 braille is a direct representation of the alphabet; grade 2 braille is contractions, like shorthand, and using grade 2 allows you to fit more in.

There are other issues that need to be considered when using braille ballot papers. Braille ballot templates were provided for the last Victorian election because there was no ability to change the ballot paper. There were some issues around that. It was not as useable. A fair bit of research would need to be put into producing braille ballot papers. For the life of me, I could not figure out how an upper house braille ballot paper could be produced. The logistics would be very difficult. Unlike standard print where it can be reduced down to 8 pt or 9 pt font to fit into certain dimensions, a braille cell is a braille cell.

Senator MURRAY —Just so I can understand your position completely: if the government were not to introduce electronic voting, where the full ramifications would need to be considered, you would not advocate adding braille to the facilities we already have, such as pre-poll, postal votes and ordinary votes?

Mr Clark —I think braille is an excellent means for supportive information that is available, but my view is that it would not be a widely adopted solution. Blind Citizens Australia would be another good group to ask this. A lot of people who read braille do not read it proficiently. For example, I only read grade 1 braille. I have a number of concerns with the use of braille. Do not hold me to these figures, but anecdotally it is suggested there are approximately 4,000 people in Australia who read braille proficiently. They are the people who could pick up a book and read it. There are a lot more who do read braille but would not use it proficiently.

Senator MURRAY —Thank you; I understand your position.

CHAIR —You talked in your opening statement—and this will be useful for the committee’s evidence and report later on—about the simple provision of information by all political parties and candidates during an election. That is a very good point. I am the first to say it is not something I have ever focused on. Do you have any arrangements with political parties about registering certain people? Which country do you think does it better? What should we be recommending in the public interest to all candidates about what they can do? Obviously all of your constituents would get all the campaign information that is delivered to letter boxes but which is of absolutely no use to them whatsoever.

Ms Dodds —As far as we go, the only agency that seems to try to relay messages to vision impaired people well is the tax office. I do not know what experience Vision Australia has, but that is one of the few agencies that proactively try to get in touch with our clients, and I assume others.

CHAIR —What happens there? Do your clients register and then receive special material?

Ms Dodds —Yes. They basically ensure that the information is out there, that there is an electronic option in terms of doing your own tax. Also, one of the welfare agencies also provides our clients with a tape of their written material that we are expected to pass out as people request it. Out of all of the agencies with which we have contact in Victoria, only two provide that option.

CHAIR —What would you suggest that political parties should do by way of service? Should they have some sort of register?

Ms Dodds —Vision impaired people would probably be like a lot of us and not want to make it known to the world how they vote. Whatever action was taken, it would need to still protect that right. Tony seems to have more experience in the voting world than I do, but I imagine that something on the internet or email is one option, but again, for those who are not that electronically minded, perhaps involving libraries or accessible areas in the local community to make information available. I would be looking at several options rather than just one that some people might miss. If the information was provided electronically, it should be covered in another way.

Mr Clark —I think there is a range of strategies that political parties could very easily apply and are quite manageable. The first is providing information on the web so it is accessible. That would mean not just having your documents available in pdf but putting them up in Microsoft Word or rich text files. I also think there is the opportunity to produce information in different formats and have it available on request, but also to let people know that it is available on request. Thirdly, in terms of political parties that do things, the Australian Labor Party produced and distributed information to about 3,000 people through Blind Citizens Australia using a database. There are other databases available; for example, we work with the Australian Electoral Commission and distribute information to about 24,000 people around Australia in their format of choice. There are mechanisms to target people and give them information, just as we receive information in our letterboxes, and also ways for people to request information and for parties to provide information simply and easily.

—The submission from the Blind Society states that, as voting in Australia is compulsory, it is incumbent on the government to provide the means to facilitate independent and empowered access and so on, and there is also a comment about—as you say—it being better in the UK, Canada and the USA in terms of electronic voting access. Those countries have voluntary voting systems. I am interested in whether you have any comment and data on the proportion of people with a sight impairment who do vote. I find it somewhat ironic that the means is provided in systems where voting is not compulsory, and we have not reached that stage yet. That is a good point you make. Do you have any other observations about that issue in the context that we require people to register and vote? What proportion of people vote in voluntary systems overseas compared with what happens here?

Mr Clark —I can only speak from an anecdotal point of view from the discussions we have had with, for example, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The feedback they have regarding that issue has been very positive. Certainly there was a view that a lot of people who had not registered to vote specifically because they did not have the ability to do it independently and secretly actually registered to vote. They were empowered to vote, and they made that choice to do so. I am not sure that there is any published data on that aspect. From the Australian perspective, there are many people who vote. I can think of three colleagues—I will not dob them in—who choose not to vote because they are not able to do so independently.

Senator FORSHAW —I suppose I was looking to see whether or not, as one would hope and assume, it actually encourages people to vote in non-compulsory systems when that facility is available.

Mr Clark —I believe that that has been the exact effect.

Senator MASON —You have outlined succinctly the problems with voting faced by vision impaired people. To your knowledge, do many vision impaired people not vote because of those difficulties?

Mr Clark —I can think of people off the top of my head, yes.

Senator MASON —Who do not vote because of those difficulties?

Mr Clark —Yes.

Senator MASON —Because of the privacy aspect and the verification aspect?

Mr Clark —Because they are unable to do it independently, and they are doing it from the point of view of wanting to make a stand.

Senator MASON —Do you think that they would vote if the system were changed along the lines that you have suggested this afternoon?

Mr Clark —Absolutely.

Senator MASON —Ms Dodds, is that your view as well?

Ms Dodds —I have not met someone who has purposely not voted, but the other issue is the donkey vote—and not even the donkey vote, but just voting incorrectly. When someone is able to read the document for themselves, understand the process better and make an informed decision, there are likely to be fewer votes that do not count. People who are trying to make their voice heard can actually make it heard by knowing that they are voting the way they intended and voting for something that they are informed about.

Mr Clark —The other point also worth bearing in mind is that we have done some focus group research—not specifically on this issue but it came out quite clearly—and a lot of people, particularly older people who have lost sight but still have mobility, just scribble on the ballot paper. This is because, first, they are too embarrassed to ask for assistance and, secondly, as they do not want to ask for assistance, they cast an informal vote.

Senator MASON —Ms Dodds, are you aware of any vision impaired person not voting because of the difficulties they face at the moment?

Ms Dodds —I have not met anyone, no.

Mr MELHAM —Is there any evidence of people who have not voted on the basis that they cannot vote independently being fined by the Electoral Commission or receiving a letter asking them to explain, and what has been their response and subsequent action?

Mr Clark —I do not know their exact responses. I do believe they have been contacted by the Electoral Commission. I have a feeling that it was not pursued by the Electoral Commission.

CHAIR —Finally, Ms Smith, was there anything you wanted to raise, having heard the questions and heard some of the answers? I just want to give you a brief opportunity.

Ms Smith —I agree with everything Tony and Christine have said. It is very difficult for people to accept, particularly if they lose their vision down the track, when they have been able to have the choice of voting independently to suddenly require somebody to help them. Often I have heard the younger generation talk about how they hate having to ask their parents to help them vote, because often mum and dad vote one way and the kids want to vote differently. They feel quite pressured to vote, and then they make the comment, ‘Well, I’m not sure how they voted for me anyway.’ I am sure they voted the way they requested, but there is just that feeling that they are not capable of being counted.

Mr Clark —It is important to recognise what technology has done for people who have alternate requirements. It has really equalised the playing field and allowed people to participate in our community. It is really important in what is the founding stone of our democracy for people to be able to participate equitably. Given that there is the ability to do so now, I strongly hope that that will be taken up.

CHAIR —On behalf of the members and senators here, I thank all of you for appearing today. You will have noticed from our agenda that this is a bit of a focus of what we are looking at while we are in Melbourne. We will no doubt be in touch. The committee will be reporting later in the year.

Mr Clark —Thank you very much for your time.

[2.05 pm]