On 16th May 2022, the European Disability Forum (EDF) held an event to launch its 6th Human Rights Report focused on the rights of persons with disabilities to vote and to stand as candidate in the EU elections. The report explores and compares the legal and practical barriers that prevent persons with disabilities from exercising their political rights. Ms Catherine Naughton, EDF Director, opened the event, after which a video address from the President of the European Parliament, Ms Roberta Metsola, was played. The President exclaimed that “it is an outrage that in 2022, the electoral laws of 14 member states do not allow persons with disabilities to vote – this is discrimination.”
Mr Armin Rabitsch, Chairperson of Elections-Watch.EU, gave a presentation of up-to-date information on the legal and practical barriers to voting and standing as a candidate in the European Parliament elections. Mr Rabitsch outlined the various barriers but also explained that there are a number of different ways of voting in different countries such as mobile ballot boxes, in-country postal voting, and the option to change or choose polling stations. However, different countries have some of these options and others do not. In terms of the next steps, Mr Rabitsch praised the report from EDF, saying that it is a great reference to be used for upcoming electoral reform debates at EU and national level.
Secondly, EDF Head of Policy, Mr Alejandro Moledo, presented different measures put in place to ensure equal access and opportunities in the European Parliament elections, with a focus on accessibility, alternative ways of voting, the secrecy of vote, and free choice of assistance to vote. Regarding accessibility of the election information and communication, Mr Moledo underlined that there is a general lack of accessibility in sign languages and different formats such as easy to read, and braille. For this reason, reasonable accommodations are required to ensure the accessibility of mainstream voting.
The EDF recommendations included guaranteeing the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of legal capacity status; maximising accessibility to the proceedings, materials and facilities of the elections; providing reasonable accommodation so that persons with disabilities can vote independently and secretly; ensuring the free choice of assistance; and cooperating with DPOs to assess and define how to solve the legal and practical barriers.
Finally, Ms Irena Moozova, Director for Equality and Union Citizenship in DG JUST (Directorate General for Justice and Consumers) and Chair on European Network on Elections, provided an outline of specific cases that have brought about substantial change to the democratic rights of persons with disabilities. She stated that the UNCRPD (such as Article 29) and EU Disability Rights Strategy are putting forward clear principles of respect and non-discrimination. Legally, the UNCRPD obliges the EU and Member States to ensure that right to political participation is protected, respected, and fulfilled. Further, the EU Disability Rights Strategy 2021-2030 will undertake several actions to implement the CRPD Convention. In terms of political participation, it will support several actions such as full electoral participation and accessibility of the European elections (both as voter and as candidate), as well as establish, in 2023, a guide of good electoral practice addressing participation of citizens with disabilities in the electoral process.
Ms Moozova highlighted that in the EU there are approximately 800,000 people who encountered barriers in the last EU election. Accordingly, after the last EU election, the European Parliament decided that for the 2024 elections, equal participation must be a priority. Ms Moozova mentioned a few initiatives the Commission have already published on this topic and are also working on. For example, the EU Democracy Action Plan, and the aforementioned guide that will be produced in 2023. Finally, the EU Cooperation Network of Elections is ensuring accessible voting machines and polling stations, as well as adjustment for voters with disabilities, such as the introduction of Whatsapp services for voters with hearing disabilities.