ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE UPDATE

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BILL 231 PASSES THIRD READING VOTE TODAY AT QUEEN’S PARK –AODA ALLIANCE WRITES ELECTIONS ONTARIO TO CALL FOR SPEEDY ACTION ON ELECTIONS ACCESSIBILITY

May 3, 2010

SUMMARY

Today, the Ontario Legislature passed Bill 231 on Third Reading. This is the last step that the Legislature needs to take on this proposed legislation. Bill 231 is the McGuinty Government’s proposal to modernize Ontario elections, including addressing barriers impeding voters and candidates with disabilities.

The AODA Alliance has issued a news release on this event, set out below. We declare Bill 231 a partial victory for persons with disabilities. Our efforts let to improvements to the bill. The bill was largely toothless when it was initially introduced in the Legislature last December. However, we regret that the McGuinty Government used its majority in the Legislature to defeat so many amendments that the opposition NDP and Conservative Party proposed at our request. Those amendments would have made this bill strong and effective.

In light of Bill 231 passing today, we have also written the Chief Electoral Officer, Greg Essensa, to call for speedy action to address the barriers that impede Ontarians with disabilities in Ontario elections. Our letter, set out below, offers constructive suggestions on actions Elections Ontario should take. It asks Elections Ontario to meet with us, to make public its plans for accessible elections, and to report periodically on its progress. Among other things, we urge Elections Ontario to immediately study telephone and internet voting, and to complete that study within one year.

Send our news release to your local media. Urge them to cover this story. Let them know what you think of Bill 231.

As always, send us your feedback. Write us at: aodafeedback@gmail.com


ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
NEWS RELEASE - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

ONTARIO LEGISLATURE SLATED TODAY TO PASS ELECTIONS LAW – WHAT DID OVER 1 MILLION VOTERS WITH DISABILITIES GAIN?

May 3, 2010 Toronto: Today, the Ontario Legislature is expected to pass Bill 231, the McGuinty Government’s modernization of Ontario elections. But will it ensure that voters with disabilities can enter all polling stations (that are too often inaccessible) and independently and privately mark their ballot without someone else having to do it for them?

The bill tabled last fall did little for voters with disabilities. A grassroots campaign by the disability community, fuelled by Elections Ontario’s using several inaccessible polling stations in February’s Toronto by-election, led disability issues to dominate the bill’s debates.

“After 11 long years of campaigning for equal access to the vote for Ontarians with disabilities, this bill is a partial victory on the road to fully accessible Ontario elections,” said David Lepofsky, chair of the non-partisan AODA Alliance, spearheading efforts to strengthen Bill 231. “The McGuinty Government amended the bill to require all polls to be accessible, in the face of Elections Ontario’s sorry record. Elections Ontario now must post poll sites six months in advance, so we can check their accessibility. Sadly the Government defeated amendments that would make this enforceable.”

The bill bans telephone and internet voting. “We’ve never heard of a government banning an access technology they’d never even investigated,” said Lepofsky. “This access technology would create real accessibility for many voters with disabilities and would appeal to all voters.”

At the last minute, voters with disabilities won amendments softening that ban. Elections Ontario must study alternative voting technology and report by June 2013. A legislative committee can lift the ban on that technology after 2011, if Elections Ontario tries it in a by-election and recommends it.

“This bill gives the unelected Elections Ontario a veto over whether this access technology will be used, and a leisurely three years to study it,” said Lepofsky. “Cobourg successfully used telephone and internet voting in the 2006 municipal election and will use it this fall. If we can securely bank by phone, and file our taxes on the internet, why can’t we vote by phone or internet?”

In the 2011 election, the bill only makes Elections Ontario have one accessible voting machine per riding, for voters who can’t mark a paper ballot themselves, such as blind voters. In contrast, sighted voters vote privately at their local poll. Blind voters wishing to privately mark their own ballot, may have to trek to the one poll in their entire riding with this accessible voting equipment – possibly far in rural areas.

At public hearings, voters with disabilities told of appalling election barriers. The NDP and Conservatives proposed strong amendments to make Bill 231 groundbreaking. The Liberal majority defeated almost all of them, in favour of baby-steps.

The spotlight shifts to Elections Ontario. Bill 231 gives it responsibility to tear down barriers against voters with disabilities. Today, the AODA Alliance wrote to Elections Ontario, urging it to immediately study telephone and internet voting, to report to the Legislature in 2011, to test it when a by-election next comes up, and to make public their plans for accessible elections. (See below)

Contact: David Lepofsky aodafeedback@gmail.com

Extensive background to this issue available at:


ACCESSIBILITY FOR ONTARIANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT ALLIANCE
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May 3, 2010

Mr. Greg Essensa, Chief Electoral Officer
Elections Ontario
51 Rolark Drive
Scarborough, Ontario
M1R 3B1
facsimile (416) 326-6200
email greg.essensa@elections.on.ca

Dear Sir,

Re: Making Ontario Elections Fully Accessible To All Voters With Disabilities

Bill 231 is expected to pass Third Reading in the Legislature today. We write to ask Elections Ontario to immediately take needed steps to ensure the full accessibility of elections to voters and candidates with disabilities in Ontario. In this letter we offer specific suggestions for Elections Ontario, ask you to outline your plans for ensuring accessible elections and to report periodically on your progress, and offer to meet with you as soon as possible to follow up on these suggestions.

As you know, concern over the many barriers that have impeded voters and candidates with disabilities in Ontario elections dominated hearings and debates in the Legislature over Bill 231, as well as media coverage of it. We share the view you expressed to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly during its March 24, 2009 public hearings that “…Elections Ontario needs to be doing a much better job of ensuring accessibility for electors.”

A. Ensuring The Right To Independently And Privately Mark One’s Ballot And Verify One’s Choice

It is important for Elections Ontario to start immediately exploring alternative accessible voting technologies that would enable all voters with disabilities to independently mark their ballot in private, vote, and verify their choice, on terms equal to those now available to voters without disabilities. We would welcome the opportunity to work with you and Elections Ontario to ensure that new voting technologies are researched, test-piloted, and deployed as soon as Bill 231 allows.

The voting procedures mandated in Ontario now deny to many voters with disabilities the fundamental right to independently mark their ballot in private and verify their choice. You correctly described that right to the Select Committee on Elections as a “founding principle of democracy." As such, Elections Ontario has a duty to ensure the elimination of barriers to that right as soon as possible.

A significant number of voters with disabilities cannot mark their own paper ballot independently and privately, and verify their choice. This includes, for example, voters with vision loss, voters with dyslexia, and voters who do not have the physical ability to mark a ballot with a pen or pencil.

Until now, these voters had two options: First, they could get someone else to mark their ballot for them. Those voters lost the right to mark their own ballot in private, and to verify their choice. Those voters won’t know if the ballot was marked as they wished, and if it was accidentally spoiled. Even though the person marking their ballot must swear to keep the voter’s choice confidential, the voter will never know if their choice is later revealed to others. For them, there is no secret ballot.

The other option for voters with vision loss or dyslexia has been to use a “template” that Elections Ontario creates, that overlays the paper ballot and that has a hole cut out for each candidate. Even if a voter cannot see, they can mark their choice in the appropriate hole. However, the voter cannot know for certain if the template is properly lined up. If it is not, the voter can accidentally spoil their ballot. The voter also cannot independently verify if they marked the ballot for the candidate of their choice.

Because Bill 231 bans telephone and internet voting, this legislation only entitles these voters to one accessible voting machine per electoral riding. This means that in the 2011 Ontario general election, voters who can mark their own ballot independently will be able to go to the polling station nearest to their home to vote on election day, or can stay home and send in a mail-in Special Ballot. They will fully enjoy their right to independently mark their ballot in private and verify their choice.

In sharp contrast, voters with disabilities who cannot independently mark their own traditional paper ballot will have a cruel choice. They can trek all the way to the one polling station in their riding to use the new accessible voting machine. Otherwise they can go to the polling station near their home, and have someone else mark their ballot. In the latter case, they lose the right to independently mark their own ballot in private and verify their choice. They are provided no means to vote from home, while enjoying the right to mark one’s ballot privately and independently.

It is necessary to eliminate this striking inequality in Ontario elections as soon as possible. Bill 231 assigns lead responsibility for doing this to Elections Ontario.

Options like telephone voting or internet voting, which Bill 231 now bans, would eliminate this inequality for a very large number of voters with disabilities. As a result of our advocacy efforts, Bill 231 requires you to conduct a review of alternative voting technologies, such as telephone and internet voting, and to submit a report to the Legislature on them. Bill 231 gives you up until June 2013 to submit that report. We believe you should be able to complete that report within a matter of months, not years. We shared the view, voiced by Liberal MPP Greg Sorbara, during the April 21, 2010 clause-by-clause debates on Bill 231 that: “…as a practical matter, one would expect that the Chief Electoral Officer will be reporting to Parliament much before the date set out here, which is the final date…”

It is important that Bill 231’s June 2013 end-date not be used as an excuse for delay. The duty to accommodate persons with disabilities includes an obligation to eliminate such barriers as expeditiously as possible.

We recommend the following:

1. Elections Ontario’s study of alternative voting technologies should start immediately. It should be completed within one year, and certainly before the end of 2011.

2. Your review of alternative voting technologies should include, among other things, an examination of the current deployment of measures, like telephone and internet voting, used right here in Ontario in municipalities such as Cobourg (who first successfully used these in the 2006 municipal election and is using them again in this fall’s municipal election). It should also include an exploration of the use of this technology elsewhere around the world. We can point you to examples of these, which can be tracked down on the internet in minutes.

3. When we met with you to discuss election accessibility back on January 26, 2010, we informally raised with you the issue of telephone voting, as a way to increase the accessibility of elections for voters with disabilities. At that time, your initial reaction was skeptical if not dismissive. We ask you to bring an open mind to the issue that the Legislature has assigned to you.

4. Your study should include careful consultation with the disability community. You have already voiced a strong commitment to consulting with our community on elections accessibility generally.

5. Your study should also include close consultation with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario. Both public agencies have expertise on accessibility, from which Elections Ontario could greatly benefit. This is so, especially in light of your recognition at the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly that Elections Ontario is still learning about accessibility.

6. Under amendments to Bill 231 enacted as a result of our advocacy efforts, starting on January 1, 2012 Elections Ontario can recommend to a Standing Committee of the Legislature that the ban on access technologies such as telephone and internet voting be lifted. Elections Ontario should aim to be in a position to make that recommendation by that date.

Bill 231 does not require Elections Ontario to have completed its full study of alternative voting technologies before it makes that recommendation to the Legislature’s Standing Committee. In any event, as discussed earlier in this letter, Elections Ontario should be able to complete its study of alternative voting technology well before that date.

7. Under Bill 231, Elections Ontario must have tested alternative voting technology such as telephone or internet voting in a provincial by-election before it can recommend to the Legislature’s Standing Committee that this access technology be used in a general election. To that end, Elections Ontario should prepare itself to test out telephone and internet voting in the next by-election called in Ontario. Of course, we do not now know when the next by-election will be. That adds even more impetus for Elections Ontario to get to work on this issue immediately. Elections Ontario need not complete its full study of this technology and report on it to the Legislature before it tests it in a by-election.

8. We recognize that telephone and internet voting systems should have reasonable security. However, Elections Ontario should not use an unfairly onerous test for system security.

Bill 231 allows all voters to vote by a mail-in “special ballot.” The Legislature has accepted a quite low level for ballot security for them. Mail-in ballots can be stolen, misplaced at home, or lost in the mail. Voters with disabilities should not have their right to independently and privately mark their ballot and verify their choice subjected to a relatively more onerous test for voting system security.

9. Until and unless Bill 231’s ban on network-connected access voting technology is lifted by a Standing Committee of the Legislature on your recommendation, the only provision for the right to independently and privately mark one’s ballot is the stand-alone voting machine that Elections Ontario has tested and recommended. Bill 231 requires that a minimum of one of these accessible voting machines be placed in each riding, starting in the 2011 general election. We are eager to know what plans Elections Ontario has for deploying these machines. Will more than one be deployed in each riding? Where will they be deployed to make them as accessible as possible to voters across a riding? Elections Ontario should widely publicize the availability of these machines to voters with disabilities. Voters with disabilities should have a chance to train on these machines in advance of voting day, to reduce the line-up on election day.

B. Ensuring Full Accessibility of All Polling Locations

As you know, Bill 231 requires all polling stations in Ontario elections to be accessible to voters with disabilities. As Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission made clear in her March 24, 2010 presentation to the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly on Bill 231, this is a requirement of the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights.

We have been deeply concerned that in the 2007 election, Elections Ontario did not understand this. Elections Ontario’s report on the accessibility of that election incorrectly stated that Elections Ontario was not required to ensure that all polls are accessible. That report stated:

“Although polling-day locations are not required by law to be barrier-free, we endeavour to find accessible voting locations where possible.”

It is important for Elections Ontario to better familiarize itself with its duties to voters with disabilities. We also ask Elections Ontario to let us and the public know what specific steps Elections Ontario intends to undertake to ensure that all polling stations in future Ontario elections are fully accessible to voters with disabilities. When a voter gets a voting card from Elections Ontario stating that their polling location is accessible, they should not be left uncertain on whether this will turn out to be the case, as has been the case in the past.

We recommend that Elections Ontario’s plans for polling station accessibility include these steps, among others:

1. Elections Ontario should consult with the Ontario Human rights Commission, the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario and the disability community on what is needed to make sure a polling station is fully accessible to voters with disabilities. Elections Ontario should set and make public a standard for polling location accessibility within the next three months. We believe that this is a simple task.

2. Elections Ontario often re-uses the same polling stations in election after election. We now know there is no assurance that all sites previously used are fully accessible. We recommend that Elections Ontario now review all polling locations it used in the 2007 general election and in subsequent by-elections, for accessibility. Elections Ontario should not simply post on its website its previously-used locations six months before the 2011 election, and leave it to voters with disabilities to do the audit of those locations which Elections Ontario should itself now be undertaking.

3. Bill 31 only requires Elections Ontario to post intended polling locations on the internet six months before an election. Elections Ontario should post these more than six months in advance, to give the maximum opportunity for public input. We note that the next general election is 18 months away. Elections Ontario thus has ample time and opportunity to address this issue now.

As well, Elections Ontario should do more than just post this list on the internet. It should widely publicize its proposed polling locations, and the opportunity for public feedback regarding their accessibility. Many voters with disabilities will not be checking Elections Ontario’s website to see if proposed polling locations are posted for public comment.

4. You should establish and make public a process for assessing and responding to feedback from the public that Elections Ontario will receive on polling locations that it proposes to use. If Elections Ontario rejects a request to change a polling location, it should give reasons for this. Elections Ontario should also make available a process for a voter to appeal to you if Elections Ontario does not act on accessibility concerns that a voter raises during that pre-election period.

Elections Ontario needs to do this proactive work for three reasons: First, the accessibility reports on the 2007 election, filed with Elections Ontario by returning officers in each riding, make it clear that there are known accessibility problems with some voting locations. Second, you correctly acknowledged to the Standing Committee that the information in those returning officers’ accessibility reports is not necessarily accurate. Finally, as Elections Ontario’s 2007 accessibility report admits, fully 44% of voters with disabilities surveyed encountered difficulties voting, including problems with polling locations.

C. Availability of Home Visits by Elections Ontario

Bill 231 lets certain voters with disabilities ask Elections Ontario to conduct a home visit to help them with the mail-in special ballot process. We recommend that:

1. Elections Ontario widely publicize the availability of home visits to voters with disabilities, and

2. Elections Ontario provide an informal appeal to the Chief Electoral Officer where voters with disabilities are refused a home visit.

D. Publicizing Elections Ontario’s Accessibility Plans and Progress

In your March 24, 2010 presentation to the Standing Committee on Bill 231, you said that:

“…election officials need to be accountable, and the process we administer needs to be transparent.” We agree.

To that end, we ask Elections Ontario to promptly make public not only the information requested earlier in this letter, but your detailed plans for ensuring accessibility in the next general election, as well as your plans for discharging your duties regarding telephone and internet voting under Bill 231. We also ask that Elections Ontario periodically let us know what progress you are making on these plans.

In your February 5, 2010 letter to us, you said that your staff was in the process of setting up a meeting with us in the coming weeks. We are eager to meet as soon as possible.

Sincerely,

David Lepofsky, CM, O. Ont.
Chair, AODA Alliance

cc: Hon. Dalton McGuinty, Premier, fax 416-325-9895, email mcguinty.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org
Madeleine Meilleur, Minister, Community & Social Services, fax (416) 325-3347, email madeleine.meilleur@ontario.ca
Marguerite Rappolt, Deputy Minister, Community & Social Services, fax (416) 325-5240, email marg.rappolt@ontario.ca
Ellen Waxman, Assistant Deputy Minister, Accessibility Directorate, fax (416) 325-9620, email Ellen.Waxman@ontario.ca
Tim Lewis, Director, Democratic Institutions Policy, fax (416) 325-4773, email tim.lewis@ontario.ca
Tim Hudak, Leader of the Official Opposition, fax (416) 325-0491, email tim.hudak.co@pc.ola.org
Andrea Horwath, Third Party Leader, fax (416) 325-8222, email ahorwath-qp@ndp.on.ca