Democracy and Inclusion: Expanding Ecuador’s voting accessibility

Disability need not be an obstacle to success. I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a prominent career in astrophysics and a happy family life.                   -Professor Stephen W Hawking.

The act of voting is the most common example associated with democracy. In fact, some might argue this is the purest form of democracy, symbolizing true equality. Everyone –regardless of their ethnicity, religion or wealth – has the right to elect his or her representative. The ‘one person, one vote’ requirement translates into the ‘all men and women are created equal’ principle. For this to become a reality, everyone entitled to vote should have the possibility to do so. In practice, however, many citizens around the world are disenfranchised and myriad legal, social and even physical obstacles hamper the political participation of individuals and groups.

From formal legal bans, to gerrymandering and cultural traditions, many countries exclude some of its citizens. For women, legal and glass ceilings are everywhere. In parts of Pakistan and Nigeria, for instance, women are not allowed to register to vote in elections if they go without a male companion. Religion, traditions and patriarchal values – often translated into violence – can also hamper participation.  In Peshawar, Pakistan, hard-line militants warned candidates in the 2008 election not to bring their female supporters to ballot booths (Rhode, 2008). The LGBTI community is also affected. In Africa, 24 out of 54 countries have approved measures to ban or punish homosexuality, leading to dozens of arrests and generalized discrimination. As a result, LGBTI people cannot freely participate or vote, especially if under arrest.  Established democracies discriminate against certain groups as well. In the US, strict voter ID laws effectively supress the participation of racial minorities such as Hispanics, African Americans and mixed-race Americans.

Reality for Peoples with Disabilities

People with disabilities are one of the groups most likely to face difficulties to exercise their right to vote. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Body impairments alone do not hinder full participation. Attitudinal and environmental barriers play a big role.  Therefore, a person with impaired mobility (for instance, because of paralysis) might have problems obtaining a voter ID document not because of his or her condition, but because the ID is provided in a building without accessible ramps. Similarly, a visually challenged person might not be able to vote not because of blindness but because of a lack of braille ballot papers.

Persons with disabilities represent a large segment of the voting population. It is estimated that 1 billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability (World Bank, 2018). The prevalence rate amongst voting age adults (18 and over) is also very similar, at 15.6%. In spite of this, unfortunately, this group is more likely to be excluded from voting and from political participation in general. In the United States, for example, a nation-wide study of the 1998 elections revealed that turnout among people with disabilities is 20% lower than among people without disabilities, who have otherwise-similar demographic characteristics. Moreover, there is great variation within the disability sample: people with disability age 65 or older are even less likely to vote.  The combination of old age and disability constitutes an even larger obstacle to political participation.

Long voting lines under a scorching heat, poorly trained poll workers, inadequate transportation to polling stations, strict voter ID laws, badly designed  ballot papers, and polling places in remote or inaccessible locations already make it hard for people without disabilities to vote. For people with disabilities, these constitute even larger obstacles. In addition, one must consider other issues such as a lack of braille ballot papers, inadequate voting machines (e.g. without earphones) or no assistance to help in marking the ballot. According to a study following the US 2012 elections, 30% of voters with disabilities reported difficulty in voting at polling stations, compared to only 8% of voters without disabilities.  Naturally, these conditions contribute to the decline of political participation.

More than physical ability

It is not only about physical limitations. People with disabilities also face emotional and social problems that can exclude them from public life and from participating in politics, either as voters, activists or candidates. As early as the 1940s scholars found that people with disabilities are likely to develop the same emotional outlook as members of other minority groups who are discriminated against because of age, sex, religion or race.  This has both individual and social causes. First, physical defect has unique, personal and often deep, unconscious significance for the disabled person. Second, disability can result in social attitudes that range from complete rejection to zealous overprotection by family and friends. As a result, disability often goes hand in hand with isolation and exclusion.

This is why it is very important to clear the way – literally and figuratively – for people with disabilities. Democracy is not only about casting a ballot from time to time, democracy is being part of a community and having a say in its organisation and future.  Therefore, elections – as the key example of a democracy – must send the message that everyone, especially people with disabilities, belongs in the community. 

 Ecuadorian man votes from his wheelchair through the ‘Voting in Senior Homes’ programme.  Photo Credit: Miguel Lara Otaola

Ecuadorian man votes from his wheelchair through the ‘Voting in Senior Homes’ programme.

Photo Credit: Miguel Lara Otaola

Making strides in Ecuador

Ecuador, through its National Electoral Council (CNE, for its acronym in Spanish) sends this message. Starting in 2013, this election management body has implemented two key mechanisms that have allowed people usually excluded from the electoral process to vote.

First, the ‘Voto en Casa’ (Voting from Home) programme allows elderly and disabled people to participate in the election. One day before Election Day, armed with voting booths, ballot papers, voter ink and registration lists, CNE staff goes to the homes of these people.  Escorted by members of the National Council for Disabilities (CONADIS, for its acronym in Spanish), political party representatives and election observers, CNE helps people over 65 years of age and with more than 75% of disability (verified by CONADIS) to exercise their right to vote.  This programme started as a pilot project for the 2013 presidential elections with only 18 people from the province of Tungurahua. Nowadays it has expanded to cover all 24 provinces. For the latest election in the country, the 2018 Popular Consultation and Referendum Process, which the Electoral Integrity Project was invited to observe, 756 people were registered.

Second, the ‘Voto en Geriátricos’ (Voting in Senior Homes) programme sets up polling stations within retirement homes so that it is easier for senior citizens to vote. Voto en Geriátricos started in the 2017 General Election with 61 people registered in 2 retirement homes in the capital Quito.  Then, for the 2018 Popular Consultation and Referendum Process it covered 167 people in 4 retirement homes located in Ecuador’s’ three main cities: Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca. The CNE plans to expand this programme as well; for the 2019 elections, around 40 elderly centres (and at least one per province) will be included in this initiative.

According to Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995), three key factors determine voter turnout: resources, or “are you able to participate?” psychology, or “do you want to participate?” and recruitment, or “did anyone ask you to participate?” Bringing the ballot box closer to the elderly and the disabled is a powerful message of inclusion that promotes electoral integrity. These efforts are removing obstacles so those once unable to participate, are now able to exercise their right to have their voices heard.

Despite these important strides, there are significant electoral integrity challenges in Ecuador. Ecuador has a Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index score of 50 (on a scale from 0 to 100), ranking 108 out of the 164 countries included in the study to date. Further details on some of the challenges for electoral integrity in Ecuador, can be found in the in the Electoral Integrity Project’s 2017 mid-year report.