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Malawian Blind Voters Push for Tactile Ballots

  • Lameck Masina

FILE - An elderly woman casts her vote in Malawi's general election in Machinga district, north of the commercial capital, Blantyre.

FILE - An elderly woman casts her vote in Malawi's general election in Machinga district, north of the commercial capital, Blantyre.

Malawians who are blind are pushing the Malawi Electoral Commission to make available tactile ballot guides (TBG) for them to cast their votes independently. In previous elections, they have been relying on guides who do the marking for them. They argue that such an arrangement violates their right to choose because they were not sure if their guides had really marked on the candidate of their choice.

An advocacy group for the rights of people who are deaf and blind, the Visual Hearing Impairment Membership Association, said that tactile ballots will help ensure the full participation of the disabled in the elections.

“The issue is that these people seem not to be assisted in the past elections. Yes, there might have been some problems [on the part on the commission] in the past, but this time we are saying ‘no, no, no.' These people by nature have a right to vote as human beings and children of this country,” said Hockings Munyenyembe, program manager for the association.

Munyenyembe said people who are deaf and blind have long been cheated by the electoral procedure, which allows them to use guides during voting. He believes this is a violation of their right to privacy.

“In most cases it had been discovered that these people [guides] had the opportunity to manipulate the system because, yes, the blind person could choose the person by naming, but when it comes to physical ticking, the person guiding the deaf blind person had a chance to change the other side," explained Munyenyembe.

Research by the association in 2010 showed that Malawi had more than 6,000 people are visually and hearing impaired. However, Munyenyembe says the association boasts about 2,800 registered members. And about 300 of them are expected to cast their ballots.

Sangwani Mwafulirwa, spokesperson for the Malawi Electoral Commission, told VOA that although the electoral law allows a visually impaired person to bring someone from home to assist in voting, the commission will make sure that this time around they vote independently.

“As the Malawi Electoral Commission, we have made it clear that we are going to provide tactile ballots in each and every center, so that if someone comes and needs to use a tactile ballot, they can use it,” said Mwafulirwa.

But Munyenyembe says with few weeks remaining to the election, they are worried about the slow pace the commission is taking to produce the tactile ballot. He says the association would need the sample ballots to pre-test them as well as to educate qualified voters on their use.

The Federation of Disability Organizations in Malawi, or FEDOMA, said it is seeking legal redress that would compel the commission to meet the demands of the people with disabilities for the elections.

Action Amos is executive director of the organization. He told a news conference last week in Blantyre that, among other things, the commission has failed to come up with an action plan and budget allocation for issues of accessibility for people with different disabilities.

“As an organization which represents persons with disabilities, we think that we need legal redress so that these people with disabilities are also able to cast their votes,” said Amos.

Mwafulirwa told a local radio, Capital FM, that the commission is making efforts to address all concerns raised by FEDOMA. But he said the commission cannot stop anybody from taking it to court.