Andrew Devenish-Meares road tests the new telephone voting system for blind and low vision voters.

I turned 18 in 1994 and cast my first vote in the NSW State election in 1995, followed up in 1996 by my first federal and local government elections. Throughout 1996 and 1997, I lost a substantial amount of my vision. The next time I voted, my ballot paper was a slip of paper with fuzzy black markings. I recall memorising candidate orders so I could mark the paper myself and feeling unsure that I’d done it correctly after I’d slipped the paper into the ballot box.

After that, I no longer had enough vision to see the boxes and correlate them with the unreadable name text, and I had to ask for help. I had lost the right to my secret ballot, something that vision impaired people in Australia have not had, despite it being a core part of voting in Australia since before Federation.

At the 2007 federal election, computer assisted voting was available in limited locations, with some very confused messages about who was eligible to use it. Unsurprisingly, it saw limited use. At the last federal election in 2010, blind and low vision voters could vote via phone by showing up to an AEC office.

We were living in Wollongong at the time, so my wife and I made our way to the local AEC office, where the returning officer rang a call centre for me to cast my vote. I cast my vote over the phone without the call centre staff knowing who I was—probably near enough to a secret vote.

There were things that made me uncomfortable with this. Firstly, I had to find my way to the AEC, which I would have found difficult without my wife. I did find out that I could have called the office and had someone come and meet me, but I only found that out from the office staff when casting my vote. The extension of this problem is that if you do not live near an AEC office or centre, voting by phone is not an option.

The second problem for me was that it felt like an intrusion. The people working at the Electoral Commission were more than welcoming and happy to assist me voting, but this was a busy time for them, and having the returning officer shut out from working in her office for ten minutes while I voted felt like an imposition.

A secret vote

At the NSW State election in 2011, iVote, an online and telephone based voting system, was available. While its aim was to ensure it met the needs of the vision impaired, it was open to anyone as an alternative to a postal vote. It was in wide use and was, by all accounts, very successful. Here, for the first time, I had voted without needing anyone else.

This year, I could vote in the privacy of my own home, I felt I could take my time, and I was able to order 110 candidates and cast a valid vote.

While the federal Parliament hasn’t provided as expansive a solution as NSW, the 2013 federal election will let blind and low vision electors vote via phone from any location. First, you must call to register before noon on September 7. The staff will locate you on the electoral roll, and you must state that you are blind or have low vision and can’t fill in a ballot yourself. You need to choose a six digit PIN and the AEC will send you via mail, email and/or SMS, an eight digit registration number.

Once you have your registration number you can call back and vote. The call centre staff won’t know your name, and you’re advised not to provide any information that could identify you.

The process of voting for the House or Representatives and voting below-the-line in the Senate took just over 30 minutes for me. It helps if you can organise your preferences beforehand; the AEC site lists candidates and the websites and can help you organise below the line preferences, with varying degrees of accessibility. With each preference, the call centre staff repeated the name, party and number entered for the candidate, which was clear and easy to follow.

Last time, I didn’t vote below the line in the Senate, partially because I felt like I was imposing on the AEC office, and partially because I wasn’t sure about communicating the preferences over the phone. This year, I could vote in the privacy of my own home, I felt I could take my time, and I was able to order 110 candidates and cast a valid vote. This is a step forward for vision impaired voters in Australia.

Andrew Devenish-Meares has worked in information technology at a number of not-for-profit organisations and is currently a solutions analyst at the University of New England. He lives in Armidale, NSW with his wife and son.

This is an edited version of the ABC Ramp Up published article.

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