The democratic right to vote for persons with disability – MFOPD

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The democratic right to vote for persons with disability - MFOPD“Malta Federation of Organisations Persons with Disability (MFOPD) feels the need to voice its opinions and beliefs about the right to vote of persons with disability.

With the elections for the European Parliament just round the corner, it is a shocking fact that 500,000 EU citizens in 16 Member States, including Malta, will not be allowed to exercise this fundamental right flagged by Article 31 of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability (UN CRPD).

Various fora within the European Union have highlighted this issue for a number of years, with a more intensive campaign running at full swing in the last months prior to the EU elections in May. It is the duty of MFOPD to hoist its flag in unison with the European Disability Forum (EDF) and Inclusion Europe, to mention but the very few.

It welcomes with pleasure the news emanating from a research conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and published on 26 February, stating that some EU Member States are slowly decreasing obstacles and restrictions on the right to vote for persons with disability being described as lacking the legal capacity to make appropriate decisions.

For instance, in 2017 in Slovakia, the Supreme Court ruled that the law tying the right to vote to legal capacity was unconstitutional. In February 2019, it was the turn of the German Federal Constitutional Court which issued a similar decision regarding participation in national elections. It is a slow process, considering that such gradual steps are only taking place in too few countries.

MFOPD considers it its duty, as much as a right, to react to the deprivation of a fundamental right for persons with disability. Similar action is currently being advocated in Spain and the Czech Republic by civil society organisations who joined forces to demand the restoration of voting rights to all, without any discriminatory procedures.

Associating the right to vote with legal capacity based on the medical assessment rather than a social one, amounts to breaching the UN CRPD decree which specifies as a right to be guaranteed that of “protecting the right of persons with disabilities to vote by secret ballot in elections and public referendums without intimidation” (Art. 31, a, ii).

In actual fact, the same article even states that persons with disabilities have the right “to stand for elections, to effectively hold office and perform all public functions at all levels of government”.

On 30 January 2019 the European Parliament’s Disability Intergroup held a seminar to discuss the real right to vote and stand for elections of persons with disability. The seminar brought together disability advocates, politicians and policymakers from several institutions who discussed the challenges to political participation of such potential candidates.

An EDF Executive Committee Member, Mr Rodolfo Cattani, reasserted that the political process needs to be accessible, that political participation of persons with disability is essential, and that the European Parliament has an important role in advancing the rights of these people.

Furthermore, Ms Anete Erdman, from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, identified the impact of stereotypes, such as the medical model of disability, as one of the main challenges to political participation.

Other obstacles are in the form of lack of accessibility to polling boots and campaign material which is the basis of informed options of persons with disability. It is therefore, a duty which in itself is beneficial to candidates, that campaigning material be available in easy to read format so it be accessible to persons with intellectual disabilities.

It is also worth noting that on 6 December 2017, delegates of the 4th European Parliament of Persons with Disability met in Brussels and adopted a Manifesto in view of the European elections to be held coming May.

Salient points of this Manifesto include the assertion of the right of persons with disability, on an equal basis with others, to fully participate as voters and/or candidates to the elections.

Attention was drawn to the fact that this specific right is guaranteed under the UN CRPD Art 29 which declares political participation as a fundamental right irrespective of the kind and degree of their disability.

Further specific points of the Manifesto are directed to the replacement of existing legal capacity legislation; the accessibility to polling stations and voting procedures; availability of campaign facilities and materials in accessible formats; and the collation and analysis of data on political participation of persons with disability.

The Manifesto highlights the fact that persons with disability residing in institutions too should be guaranteed their right to vote independently. At this point, MFOPD would like to emphasise its staunch belief and campaign in favour of the availability of Personal Assistants who would be an asset to any person with disability in exercising their right to an independent secret vote.

Article 31, a, iii, of the UN CRPD specifies that State Parties shall guarantee “the free expression of the will of persons with disability as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice.”

As the situation stands, vulnerable persons can only be assisted by the polling station commissioners who in no way could be considered as “persons of their own choice”.

It is a reality for the Federation to have received comments from vulnerable voters complaining that they were not granted their wish to be assisted by members of their family, as people enjoying their trust, when it came to voting. Such a need is even more significant with regards to persons with intellectual disabilities who should be among those whose right to vote be not withheld.

A case in point was brought forth by Adolfo Barroso from Spain, cited in a report by Krzysztof Pater, Member of the European Economic and Social Committee. He and his father went all the way to ensure that Adolfo’s right to vote be not usurped simply because he was under full guardianship. The courts tried to justify the restriction on grounds of fear that he would be influenced or taken advantage of, due to his intellectual disability.

He states that the court decision is unfair since he is “a citizen like any other and should have the same rights.” The case of Helga Stevens, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, who is an attorney by profession despite being deaf is an interesting case to quote.

She states that “as an attorney you can make a difference to one person at a time. As a politician, you can make a positive difference in the lives of many people at the same time. This is why I became a politician: to have a positive impact on people’s lives, especially in the life of persons with disabilities.”

She insists that she wants to see changes in laws depriving persons with intellectual disability of the right to vote. “This is just not fair. They should be able to vote and get information about politics and elections in easy to read format.”

Between 23 and 26 May, hundreds of millions of European citizens will be exercising their democratic right to elect their preferred members to the European Parliament. Around half a million citizens are so far deprived of this same right just because they are persons who are deemed to lack legal capacity due to their disability.

The gradual staggered improvement in this sphere results from the unified voice of civil society movements coming together to demand change.

The Maltese Political Parties need not be immune to the voice of the Federation and its Organisations demanding that they adopt policies to ensure the democratic right to vote for persons with disability in view of the State’s endorsement of the UN CRPD.

It is a fundamental fact that everyone, without any form of discrimination, should be able to play their significant role in shaping the future course of the European Union.

The European and Social Committee report demonstrates that there are no formal obstacles to the creation of EU-level legislation that will decisively guarantee full right to vote for persons with disability when it pertains to EU Parliament elections, this being the initial step towards comprehensive legislation within all Member States.

When highlighting a fundamental right, all arguments attached to it comprise all aspects to the issue. Consequently, the justification of the fundamental democratic right to vote for persons with disability embraces all elections, be they European, national and local.”

Maria Pia Gauci, MFOPD.

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