Political parties not keen on disability NGOs’ call for person of trust with voters

Major parties wary of person of trust in polling booth for disabled people

Disabled voters cannot be be accompanied inside the polling booth by carers and relatives
Disabled voters cannot be be accompanied inside the polling booth by carers and relatives

The major political parties are wary of a suggestion to introduce a person of trust system for people with a disability while voting.

The call for disabled persons to choose their own person of trust while voting in the coming European Parliament election was made recently by the Malta Federation of Organisations Persons with Disability.

But while representatives of the Labour and Nationalist parties have insisted they are open to discuss the matter, they cautioned against abuse of the system.

The federation’s call was in line with a Europe-wide effort to improve accessibility to the voting system for vulnerable people in the May election.

“As the situation stands, vulnerable persons can only be assisted by the polling station commissioners who in no way could be considered as persons of their own choice,” the federation said.

Electoral law dictates that people must not be accompanied when exercising their right to vote to ensure the secretive nature of the ballot and avoid corrupt practices.

This also applies to old people’s homes, where the elderly cannot be accompanied inside the polling booth by carers and relatives.

However, in those cases where a person is illiterate or requires help to vote, the voter can ask the electoral commissioners in the polling station for assistance.

The law dictates to the letter the procedure to be adopted when voters ask for assistance.

There is an exception for blind people, who may ask for a Braille template of the ballot and audio recording of the candidate names. The Electoral Commission is obliged to make these available.

The federation is calling for a system by which a disabled person who requires assistance can ask for a person of their trust to accompany them inside the booth.

In this way, the individual will not be required to divulge their voting intention in front of electoral commissioners, giving them more autonomy.

However, the proposal may also be open to abuse.

A spokesperson for the Labour Party said the party was open for discussions on the matter “if it provides the best safeguards against the possibility of abuse of vulnerable persons”.

He did not elaborate but the sentiment was shared by Clyde Puli, secretary general of the Nationalist Party.

“The PN is willing to discuss any mechanism that can give disabled persons greater independence while voting without the need of third person assistance and without opening the possibility of abuse,” Puli said.

The PN secretary general said the introduction of the person of trust concept could easily lead to abuse because an individual could use the system to divulge how they voted in exchange for certain favours.

“It is the details of the implementation of such a system that define whether it provides peace of mind required of a just electoral process that allows people to vote freely,” Puli said.

It is unlikely such a system will be introduced, if at all, in time for the forthcoming European Parliament election. The major political parties have always been very cautious when changing electoral law and the tried and tested rules of the game.

A party volunteer who has participated in countless elections was dismissive of the idea, insisting it could be abused in places like St Vincent de Paul, a government home for the elderly.

“It is not the first time we have witnessed children hiding the voting document of their elderly parents because they would not want them to vote because of some dispute with the party they normally support. This is illegal because the vote is the individual’s right. Introducing a person of trust inside the polling booth may lead to undue pressure being placed on vulnerable people by their next of kin,” the party veteran, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

The law on voting

The General Elections Act says that the Electoral Commission shall “as far as possible, provide facilities so that handicapped persons, including persons in wheelchairs, may vote in comfort”.

In Article 72 of the law it details how “illiterate or incapacitated voters” can vote with assistance of electoral commissioners.

Any voter who declares to the assistant commissioners that they are unable “by reason of blindness, other physical cause or illiteracy” to mark the ballot paper, may request an assistant commissioner to mark the paper on their behalf.

The voter may not ask for any particular assistant commissioner to mark the ballot paper. The law dictates that it is the voter who has to indicate which candidate or candidates he wishes to vote for and the order of the vote.

Assistant commissioners are bound to secrecy with regard to the voting of persons whom they have assisted to vote.

The law also makes it incumbent that there shall not be less than two assistant commissioners present when the vote is being recorded, “but no other person shall be allowed in the room”.