Thursday, February 21, 2013
A Right to Secrecy Denied: Disabled People and the Secret Vote
I hesitate to write about political issues for a number of reasons. One is, of course, that anything I say risks being interpreted politically. Secondly, the fact that, as a visually impaired person, I am forced to vote in front of what is called an “electoral commission”, one might say that my vote is an ‘open secret’ since I have to reveal my vote to third parties.
Granted, the members forming part of every electoral commission in each locality is bound by law to keep my vote confidential. However, a number of appointed commissioners are also appointed party officials and have political interests. Indeed, the possibility that this knowledge is either exploited for political ends or else, used against me in any way in the future, are a real cause of concern. In addition, the fact that some disabled people have to vote with the assistance of an electoral commission may have more serious implications, especially in more closely knit communities such as those found in Gozo.
Apart from that, by being denied the right to a secret vote, I'm also being denied one of my fundamental civil liberties and human rights. On the other hand, this state of inequalities that still exist in Malta, at least, may change with Malta's ratification of the UN Convention Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) since Article 29 of the same convention includes the right to participate in public and political life. In fact, the article affirms that all disabled people,, whatever their impairment, should have access not only to a vote, but to a secret vote.
At this point, it's important to explain what the functions of the UNCRPD are.
First, the UNCRPD is not creating any new rights for disabled people. Rather, the UNCRPD is a document produced after a series of discussions between various stakeholders involved in the area of disability, including disabled people and their representative organisations, where parties agreed that disabled people were denied the enjoyment of their human rights because society failed to keep their needs into account when it came to providing access to these rights.
Secondly, since the UNCRPD goes into practical details on how states can enable disabled people to benefit from their rights, the recommended action to ensure equality of access to these rights will, indirectly, benefit other groups in society who may be excluded from accessing their human rights because of other factors other than impairment. Indeed, , this isn’t just something we, disabled people, will benefit from.
True, all of us who are blind or have a visual impairment, those of us who due to a physical impairment can’t use our hands or have a print disability are bound to benefit. But this right will also provide people who cannot read or write, for example, with the chance to vote in secret.Regrettably, I am also aware that certain disabled people, including people with an intellectual impairment or those with mental health conditions are often denied the right to vote altogether without much question. An injustice that also needs to be addressed.
As for me, I admit that I feel anxious when it gets to the voting season. The fact is, as things stand, I know that I must reveal my political affiliations once again to another group of perfect strangers. Trustworthy, perhaps, but still strangers. While I don’t find any problem with sharing my political views with those I trust the most, I’m not that comfortable with revealing my political preferences to others (whoever they may be). The fact that most citizens can vote in secret means that, come election time, I am being treated unequally to other citizens who are able to make use of the ballot paper.
Moreover, as explained already, I fear that, by disclosing my vote to appointed party officials, I risk suffering discrimination on the bases of my political opinions. Having said that, any political beliefs I might have doesn’t mean I think of disability in terms of party politics. Indeed, I firmly believe that disability is an issue that shouldn’t be politicised in the sense that disability should never become victim to partisan political exigencies. Indeed, not only would it be irresponsible of me,as someone active in public life, to address disability as a matter of party politics but the truth of the matter is that disability is one concern that cuts across every political or social affiliations. It affects, in one way, us as we grow old, it affects our children, our loved ones and all our families.
I acknowledge that local governments have responded to the problems faced by blind people, by following up on discussions with organisations representing the interests of blind or visually impaired people, such as through the introduction of the Braille ballot paper. However, considering this option only improves the situation for a few Maltese blind people who have learned Braille. In addition, this option will do nothing to improve the situation of all Maltese disabled people of voting age.
While I understand that given our turbulent political history as a nation, politicians from all sides might be reluctant to consider alternative ways by which disabled people, in particular, can vote – such as using technological solutions or the assistance of a trusted person (with the latter alternative being perhaps the most controversial in Malta*). Yet, politicians should recognise the fact that denying us the right to a secret vote also means that we remain less than second class citizens as whenever we say or write something, we know that other people actually know how we voted in the last election.
I end this article with hope. Hope that with Malta’s ratification of the UNCRPD, politicians of all political persuasions, will give us our right to vote in secret. I hope that, just for once, politicians will agree that we can no longer be treated as political tokens used to increase votes and popularity. To recognise that the vote is truly an important document which enables us to have a say in the running of our country. Indeed,only when we're able to cast our vote on an equal level to others can we say that we're moving to a position of equality.
Malta is an island state located in the Mediterranean Sea between the North of Africa and the South of Italy (a few kilometres below Sicily). The total population of Malta stands at about 400,000 people. Most of the population reports to be Roman Catholic - although, as Malta has become less insular than in the past, many aspects of society have become more secular. Having said that, the Church still plays an influence on many aspects of Maltese society.
Malta has been, for most of its history, ruled by foreign powers which left various influences on Maltese culture, language and religion. Up to 1964, Malta was still under British rule from which Malta inherited its political system. In fact, since the independence of 1964, party politics have been dominated by two main political parties, each leaning either to the centre left (Partit Laburista - the Labour Party) or centre right (Partit Nazzjonalista - the Nationalist Party). However, Malta’s accession in the European Union could help more voters to elect members of other parties who deviate from traditional politics and, thus, introduce much needed political reform.
Historically, voters have generally chosen candidates coming from the two main political parties and while there have been parties which were formed following internal divisions, these didn’t last for long. However, recent years have seen the foundation of a new party based on a green party politics agenda (Alternattiva Demokratika - the Democratic Alternative) emphasising issues related to the environment, equal rights and freedom of expression. Other important factors which may result in structural reform in parliament through the election of members belonging to third (or more) parties include the challenges posed by the global economic recession, the issue of illegal immigration and a general disenchantment with ways in which traditional parties engage in politics. into Malta,
* The voting system by which blind or visually impaired person could ask to vote with the assistance of a person of his/her choosing, or the ‘trusted friend’ is still very controversial as when it was allowed in Malta, this system was abused.
The upcoming elections for 2013 are planned to be held on March 9, 2013. Registered voters over the age of 18 are eligible to vote unless they are not serving a prison sentence,, have a particular mental health condition deemed to impair their ability to take decisions or people who have been assessed as having an intellectual impairment. Moreover, blind people who can’t confidently use the Braille ballot paper, or those with a visual impairment, people who can’t use their hands or, in any way, cannot fill in the ballot paper using the cheap pencils provided will need to vote in front of an electoral commission.
Xuereb, M. ( 2013) “Blind people ‘denied’ the right to secret vote”, The Times of Malta (Jan. 19, 2013) . Available from:
(Last Accessed: Feb 21, 2013)
Copyright © 2013-15 Gordon C. Cardona.