Ballot Box

Votes for Guide Dogs!

Once, I took voting for granted. I didn't ignore it. No, quite the opposite. I appreciated that, to achieve this, men had been transported from Tolpuddle, people had been shot,a lassie had even been trampled by racehorses. For me, voting has always been a right, to be used. Over the years, my vote has floated around assorted elections and referenda but, at least, when it has eventually landed on a particular party, it has been my decision, not that of some burly and bad-tempered bloke brandishing a Kalashnikov as the general public dutifully cast its votes for the Official Candidate.

However, now I am visually impaired, voting has become complicated. I suppose this will be the case, in some way or another, for anyone with a disability. When I say complicated, I'm not referring to deciding whether to put a number or a cross and where. Nor am I talking about problems with helicopters grounded by non-existent fog in the Western Isles or ballot boxes being accidentally tipped into the Firth of Clyde. My problem is with the whole practicality of the process.

During the recent election campaign, I had heard a great deal via the media, about the possibilities of becoming confused with the different ballot papers. I listened carefully, asked sighted friends and family for further details. However, I never heard, either on radio or television, a public information film attempting to elucidate the new system. Perhaps if the Executive had provided such a thing, 180,000 odd more votes would have been included!

As I walked along to the polling station, accompanied by Mr. Dog and husband, I blithely expected that, with a little thought, I'd manage fine. After all, in recent elections, I'd requested, and received, the braille template; a simple gadget which had made placing a cross in the appropriate box a relative doddle.

An improvement on the first time I'd turned up at a polling station with a Guide Dog. The policeman on duty demanded, “Dae you an yer man fight ower politics?” When I assured him not so anybody would notice, he continued, “Richt, jist tell him in a whisper which yin ye want an get him tae guide yer hand.” Primitive but effective. although I did wonder whether he'd ever had to intervene as some irate, wee wifie lambasted her companion with a white stick.

Alarm bells began tinkling as soon as we handed over our cards. The Official Person mispronounced my surname, identified my husband with a totally different surname, finishing off by mispronouncing our street. Trivialities to some but, as one who is literate, just unable to read print, I find such casualness very annoying. I could have done that job! If the electoral roll had been in braille. And don't you dare shake your head, muttering about the cost. That's not the point!

On request, the braille template was handed over. Without explanation, so I swanned over to a booth, assuming things would be as straight forward as in the past. It was just as well I hadn't brought along a golf club! The large template walloped about. I hadn't a clue which gaps, if any, referred to the council ballot and which to the Scottish Parliament. A queue formed. Mr. Dog strained on his lead. I was a disabled person causing an obstruction. An example of what happens when such folk are allowed into the community.

“Psst! Hoy!” I hissed at what I hoped was my husband, “Whit order are these jokers in? An which paper's which?”

“Can't you tell? What about that braille thingy?”

“Too many bits of paper and not enough room,” I hissed back. Meanwhile, the queue lengthened, shuffling and muttering.

There was soon even less room, as husband, me and Mr. Dog all attempted to squeeze into one polling booth. We ought to have submitted that as a Guiness Record. A variation on squashing dozens of students into a phone box. It proved impossible. Instead, I leant seductively over husband's neck, whispering sweet nothings into his lug. Actually, I whispered the names of the candidates and parties which I supported. In light of the resulting electoral fiasco, sweet nothings would have achieved a better result!

Walking home, I pondered on how a wheelchair user would have managed, or a puir sowel on crutches. Would the booth have had adequate space? Would the shelf within it have been accessible? Earlier in the day, a visually impaired friend had asked for assistance. She had been given a huge sheet of paper, with the candidates' names in very large print. Should have been a good idea; but it wasn't. The paper was shiny, reflecting so much light it could have been used as a heliograph, but impossible to be easily read. And, with all the other paper paraphenalia, impossible to set out within the confines of the booth.

Why not use a postal vote? Participate in our modern democracy in the comfort of my own home? I've used this in the past; years ago, when a student and, therefore, far from the electoral roll. But, there is one great disadvantage with the postal vote. Time. As a previous incumbent of No. 10 said, “A week is a long time in politics.” Between casting a postal vote and the Big Day, scandals can break; policies be ridiculed; u-turns taken. No, I prefer to vote on polling day. After all, it's what everyone else does, isn't it?

© Charlotte Bennie 2007