Voters of Europe stories
I’m both Romanian and Belgium and voted more than 10 times in my life. I was never able to vote alone: I had to have either a friend or someone from the electoral commission. It was already bas not to have privacy to vote, but in Belgium is worse: the electronic vote is completely inaccessible, and they required someone from the electoral commission, that I don’t know and don’t trust, to vote for me. How can I assure they vote for the right candidate?
If I could have one thing, it’s accessible voting machines – they exist, but still not in Belgium. I could finally go and vote aloneLoredana Dicsi, Internal Communication and Membership Officer
I vote every time and every election : 10 – 12 elections until now, local, national and european, student bodies, church..
One of the main problems I have is with the secrecy of vote. In one of my first-time voting, the booth screen was too high –I could ride my chair to the booth, but. Everyone could see whom I voted for. I made a suggestion for an more accessible booth, and the next time they had a better booth
But problems persist until today! In the last European elections, I voted in my post office, where there were no accessible booths. The process was a shamble, I had to face the corner and make my vote there. That was not acceptable.
It is not difficult to make arrangements for me to have an election experience equal to others: my student union did it. They quickly arranged for an accessible booth for me, they just put some books to elevate the ballot box. In all the other years, they did prepare in advance this booth and I could vote in privacy like everyone else. “Pirkko Mahlamäki, Finnish Disability Forum
I grew up in Canada but I have lived in Belgium one third of my life.
I never faced accessibility challenges in the democratic process: the buildings and voting stations were always accessible. It was always a good experience, and I was always able to vote.
For the recent local elections, the Brussels-Capital Region prepared a great guide on how to ensure that voting stations are accessible and on how to support persons with disabilities during voting.
Not all is positive though: the electronic voting system (with a tactile screen) was not accessible for blind and partially sighted users. It would be quite easy, however, to add audio features.
In Brussels 83% percent of voting stations were accessible – that’s pretty good but it should be 100%.
In these elections I also noticed problems with access to information. Political parties don’t seem to be concerned with making their materials accessible – many people with disabilities weren’t as informed as they wish. Accessible information is critical to the democratic process and ensures that people can make an informed choice.
Growing up in Canada, I was always very politically active – environmental issues, women’s rights, disability rights, nuclear disarmament.
When I arrived Belgium, I wanted to get involved at a local level. I helped create neighbourhood committees that brought people together around common causes.
I also got involved in promoting democracy. In Belgium, non-nationals can only vote in local elections. We are one third of the population in Brussels and we should have a voice at all levels of decision-making. I am one of the founders of the campaign 1Bru1Vote which advocates for the right for non-nationals to vote at the regional (metropolitan) level in Brussels – this is where decisions are taken about mobility, air quality and urban planning, for example. I was also actively involved in a campaign to encourage non-nationals to make use of their existing right to vote in the recent local elections.
We need to work on many levels towards a more inclusive society, and this means ensuring that everyone – persons with disabilities, women, non-nationals can participate in democracy. It is all part of the same challenge.
This is also why I accepted to join the Ecolo-Groen list and run for city councillor where I live. I ran as an independent, as part of civil society. We had a great result: I was elected and Ecolo-Groen now has the majority in the city council.
Local authorities in Belgium have a lot of responsibilities, including infrastructure, public spaces, local services, education. By the end of my mandate I hope to see more citizen participation. I hope to make my district, Ixelles, more inclusive. It’s not just about being more accessible but it’s also about awareness training on the needs of persons with disabilities. You will see a real difference by 2024.”
The voting stations in my area are in schools, which still have a few steps. Since I cannot overcome them alone, I often vote in advance in the town hall. At least, we have alternative methods of voting in Lithuania.
Schools were renovated this year so maybe next time I can vote in the local voting stations. We will see.. if not, I will do as before.”
“I was born in Poland and it was there that I voted for the first time ever, when I was 18 and Poland was under communist rule. I think I voted at least 10 times, in Poland and England, including European, national and local elections. My best memory of being involved in voting was when I was overseeing the first democratic elections in Poland in 1989 being delegated to a polling station team: what an exciting experience that was!
When I was growing up in Poland, the only way to pick your political side was really by talking to friends and family. Newspapers were state controlled. TV debates were and still are not accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people due to a lack of live subtitling of live debates. You can of course read newspapers but from my own experience and perspective, it is live debates which bring more understanding of the candidate views, persona and how they present themselves.
A few years ago, I attended an event in Central London as part of “European Dialogue” prior to previous EU elections, which was organised by the EU Office. It was a bit of a battle to have the event captioned, so deaf and hard of hearing audiences could participate in it. However, there was a bit of disappointment when the promotional video was played. The video contained short messages in most EU languages. All different languages speakers were subtitled in English except one… when a person spoke English! This was really disappointing for me and my colleagues, we felt excluded and when we complained, our complaint was not fully understood.
In the UK, political parties with big party conferences do provide live captioning. Unfortunately, smaller gatherings in local branches are still not accessible due to a lack of hearing loops or speech to text support. The lack of basic support to enable better understanding of what is being said leads to less engagement in grassroots party activism.
In terms of access to campaigning and elections in the EU, the jury is still out. If we look to the situation in Poland, we are still behind countries like the United Kingdom, where all debates, all materials in mainstream media are fully subtitled. In the UK, all polling stations are accessible and often close to where we live. In London, where I live, the station is never too far and it takes me just a few minutes’ walk to go and vote. Additionally, if we wish, we can use our right to postal vote if we register this preference in advance. This way, we will never miss a chance to vote which I feel is a very important right for anyone who due to various circumstances cannot vote in person.”Lidia Best - United Kigdom/Poland
“I have voted for 20 years: 5 years in Germany and now 15 (so far) in Belgium. I missed what should be have been my first elections: they were 16 days before my 18th birthday.
Something many people don’t realise is that secret ballots are not so secret when blind people vote. For example, the polling station in which I vote has electronic machines so I always need to have an assistant voting for me. The assistant is an official from the polling station, so they will know who I voted for. I hope that they change the electronic machines, and all the polling stations, to be accessible.
It is really important that everyone in Europe votes for the European Parliament elections. I really believe in the European project and on what it brings to people, and I believe that it’s also our role, as citizens that believe in Europe, to counter populism and Euroscepticism. This is why I decided to a door-to-door campaign in France, where I lived, to explain to citizens what the EU does for them.
That said, I believe that the EU can be improved. I hope that, in the next years, we will see more commitment to the European project: education about how the EU works to citizens, more space for the citizens to express themselves and, in general, a more direct connection between the EU institutions and citizens. I would really like to see the role of the EU taught in school: informed citizens make informed decisions.”Lars Bosmann - Germany/Belgium
“The first time I tried to vote was in 2007, when I was 20 years old. I went to the polling station and they told me I was not in the voting list! I was very surprised, because I was well over the legal age to vote. I was very annoyed that I could not do something that all my family and friends could do, I felt invisible. They didn’t even tell me why I was not on the list.
It took more than 2 years for me and my family to discover why, and thanks to the help of organisations like Plena Inclusion. They told me that I was under full guardianship. The authorities and the courts were afraid that people would take advantage of me and influence my vote. So, they decided to remove my right to vote. This is not fair, I am a citizen like any other and should have the same rights.
It was very difficult to get back my right to vote. Even when we knew why, the authorities were not able to tell us exactly how to do it: first they told me to go to a psychiatric hospital to do a test, then they told me it had to see my family doctor. When I finally took the test, they asked me weird and difficult questions such as: What is the speed of light? Who was Catherine the Great? Who was Isaac Newton? And I wonder…how is this related to voting? It is very unfair.
This whole process took a long time: I was only be able to vote last year, in 2018, more than 10 years after I tried to vote for the first time.
There is much that needs to be improved: all persons with disabilities need to have the right to vote and we need more documents in easy to read. Right now, there are people that have to choose between their rights and the possibility of having a disability allowance. This is an unfair choice.Adolfo Barroso - Spain
“I think I have voted more than 20 times in my life, counting all the elections after I turned 18. In Belgium, every citizen is obliged to vote at local and provincial elections, regional parliament elections, federal parliament elections, and European Parliament elections. In the rare case of public consultations, voting is not obligatory in Belgium.
I have never had major problems with the voting process in Flanders. All the information on how and where to vote was accessible to me as a deaf person: it is all written information. The only problem – but an important one – I have encountered as a deaf citizen was getting full access to the spoken information out there such as political meetings, televised debates, TV and radio interview, etc. Access to the television has improved a lot over the past years thanks to the provision of (more) captioning and sign language interpretation. Social media has recently also become more accessible: many videos are now captioned or subtitled. These are very positive and important developments for deaf citizens.
I can point to a very positive experience last year, during the local elections in Flanders. The televised debate on the Flemish public TV station between all the leading politicians running for mayor in Antwerp was sign interpreted simultaneously. I was therefore able to watch and understand the debate which was broadcasted live. It was very nice: many deaf people prefer to see sign language interpreters on TV, especially for programmes that are broadcast live, since captioning always runs a bit behind. I hope they will do it again for the upcoming elections in May.
Why did I decide to stand for office? The answer is very easy: I used to work as an attorney, and as an attorney you can make a difference to one person at a time. As a politician, you can make a positive difference in the lives of many people at the same time. This is why I became a politician: to have a positive impact on people’s lives, especially in the life of persons with disabilities.
A specific challenge for me, as a candidate, was the availability of sign language interpreters. For every activity really: meeting with the constituents, debates, campaign activities. I strongly believe that governments need to establish a fund to cover the expenses related to special accommodations which candidates with disabilities need to be able to compete on equal basis in the election process.
There is still a long way to go to make elections fully accessible for all. First, I would like to see a change in the laws that deprive persons with intellectual disability of the right to vote. This is just not fair. They should also be able to vote and get information about politics and elections in easy to read format.
I also want to see polling places made fully accessible. Polling places that are “good enough” is not good enough – fully accessible is the goal. This includes polling places, electronic voting machines that are fully accessible for blind persons… the whole package.”MEP Helga Stevens - Belgium
“I come from a very political family, we discuss politics a lot. Normally I could vote first time when I was 18, but the government of Germany decides to held a new election at 18th September 2005 and I become 18 in January, so I vote first time in September 2009 with age of 21 (federal and national election together). However, I rarely see things available in sign language. To decide, I can often only rely on written information. This is not fair. For example, political events are largely useless to me as they often do not have sign language interpretation. Another challenge is voting information: I would like that governments and electoral commissions start producing videos with subtitles or in sign language about how to vote.
For the European Parliament elections, I hope that parties focus more on minority rights. I see little attention on the rights of youth, persons with disabilities, women, LGBTI… there has been very little true involvement of minorities.
Finally, I hope all Europeans use this opportunity to go and vote. Even if it’s inaccessible or you don’t have the right to vote – use this opportunity to protest the conditions, to show voting is still inaccessible.”
I’m Karine, I’m 28 years old and I come from Mechelen, Belgium. My voting experiences have always been stress-free and without any problem. Last time when I went to vote I didn’t have to queue; when entering the voting office some volunteers of the Red Cross gave me assistance to pass the queue. They let me vote in a bigger polling booth, so it was easier in a wheelchair.Karine Pauwels - Belgium