Tactile Ballot Guide

Jerry Mindes

May 1, 2002 - IFES

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Tactile Ballot Guide

The use of the Tactile Ballot Guide in Sierra Leone's May 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections was the first time in Africa, and in the developing world, that the visually impaired were able to cast their ballots unassisted and in secret. The IFES/Sierra Leone-developed Tactile Ballot Guide (TBG) was historic, and groundbreaking in global efforts to fully enfranchise citizens with disabilities.

The TBG was tested in Sierra Leone on a pilot project basis in the regional capitals of Bo (Southern Region), Kenema (Eastern Region) and Makeni (Northern Region) and in the national capital of Freetown. It was used at 810 polling stations in these areas on election day, 14 May 2002. The Sierra Leone Association of the Blind deployed blind observers and their guides to monitor the use of the TBG at 214 polling stations. These observers reported that the guide had been successfully used by 438 blind voters.

The Tactile Ballot Guide Pilot Project

IFES/Sierra Leone implemented the TBG pilot project with funding from the British Department for International Development (DFID) and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Sierra Leone's National Electoral Commission (NEC) worked with IFES/Sierra Leone on all aspects of the project and authorised the use of the TBG at the selected polling stations. The pilot project had several phases: the design of the TBG, training in the use of the guide, voter education and monitoring the use of the TBG on election day. The involvement of the Action on Disability and Development (ADD) was critical to the implementation all stages of the project. The Sierra Leone Association of the Blind (SLAB) collaborated with the NEC, IFES/Sierra Leone and ADD, in evaluating the design of the guide, conducting voter education and fielding members to monitor the TBG's effectiveness.

The TBG project resulted from a mission conducted by IFES in June 2001 to collaborate with the NEC to develop an action plan to promote electoral participation by citizens with disabilities. The mission, funded by the Government of Finland, encouraged the facilitation of electoral access for disabled citizens and recommended, among other steps, the development of a ballot guide to assist blind voters in casting their vote in secret and unassisted.

What is the Tactile Ballot Guide?

The design of the Tactile Ballot Guide was based on that being simultaneously developed in Ghana by ADD, the Electoral Commission of Ghana and the Ghana Association of the Blind, in a project supported by IFES, for use in that country's August 2002 local government elections. The Ghana TBG project was implemented by IFES under a grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.

The TBG in Sierra Leone was a folder into which the ballot paper could be inserted. Bumps were affixed to the folder so that the blind voter could "read" the ballot guide with his/her finger tips and, by the number of bumps, be able to identify the candidate, in the case of the TBG for the ballot paper for the presidential election, and the party, in the case of the TBG for the ballot paper for the parliamentary elections. The voter would then place his/her thumbprint through the cut out in the guide so that it would mark the ballot paper next to the photo of the presidential candidate or the symbol of the political party. The guide would be reusable, with the election officials retrieving the guide from the voter after the voter had cast his/her ballot.

The Tactile Ballot Guide did not use Braille, given the high rate of Braille illiteracy amount Sierra Leone's blind citizens. Instead, it used bumps, which were made by glue on the ballot folder. Each political party was allocated a fixed number of bumps, which would be used for identification by the voter. The number of bumps was the same for the party's candidate in the presidential elections as for the political parties standing in the parliamentary races. The bumps were allocated in alphabetical order, as the parties appeared on the ballots in alphabetical order.

The Tactile Ballot Guide in Sierra Leone

ADD assisted IFES/Sierra Leone in conducting training workshops for NEC officials, SLAB members and political party representatives on the use of the TBG in Bo, Kenema, Makeni and Freetown prior to the elections. A key aim of the trainings was also to sensitise workshop participants on disability issues, challenging them in their definition of disability and discussing such issues as gender and disability, barriers facing disabled people and sources of support for Sierra Leoneans with disabilities. All participants reviewed the design of a sample TBG and walked through the use of the guide for election day. SLAB members also selected election observers, who would be deployed on election day to monitor the use of the TBG at the pilot project polling stations. The observers were trained in the use of the Braille monitoring form. The workshops also trained the SLAB participants to conduct further training of their membership in the use of the TBG.

Voter education on the Tactile Ballot Guide was undertaken by the NEC and by SLAB. The NEC also publicised the Tactile Ballot Guide pilot project in the media, including holding a press conference on 7 May with SLAB at NEC headquarters. The press conference resulted in various newspaper articles and radio broadcasts about the project. The NEC also arranged with SLBS TV to include a representative of SLAB in a discussion programme with the NEC on the Guide and its use.

SLAB coordinators in Freetown, Bo, Kenema and Makeni worked with radio stations to broadcast news of the project and instructions on the use of the Guide for those areas involved in the pilot project. IFES/SL assisted the media campaigns of the NEC and SLAB by developing some key messages, which stressed the availability of the Guide in Freetown, Bo, Kenema and Makeni and the fact that the Guide can be used by Braille and non-Braille readers. People were urged to contact the NEC and SLAB for more information and relatives and friends of blind people were encouraged to pass the information on.

To ensure that blind voters understood the use of the Tactile Ballot Guide, SLAB also conducted mock elections in Bo, Freetown, Kenema and Makeni to demonstrate the use of the Guide. Participants in these workshops also included SLAB election observers, who were trained in the observation methodology and in filling out the observation form in the second part of the workshop. The core group of observers were also tasked with training other observers who would make up the SLAB observation team.

SLAB deployed monitors on 14 May to 214 of the 810 polling stations which received the TBG across the country. IFES/SL and ADD personnel observed the use of the TBG in additional polling stations in the West-West, West-East and Kenema districts. The SLAB election observers were blind, and were assisted in the conduct of their duties by sighted guides. Those observers that were literate filled out Braille observer forms while others dictated their findings to their guides. Blind observers interviewed NEC officials, political party representatives and voters to determine the effectiveness of the TBG and awareness of the voters and the officials about the guide. This was the first time in Sierra Leone's history that blind observers participated in election monitoring.

The information collected by the SLAB observers, as well as by ADD and IFES/Sierra Leone personnel, who also monitored the use of the TBG, will enable the guide to be improved for future use in elections in Sierra Leone, and in other countries. It is hoped that the NEC in Sierra Leone will be able to expand the use of the TBG in future elections by distributing it to all polling stations nationwide. It is critical to accompany the commitment to use the TBG with sustained and comprehensive voter education to encourage blind Sierra Leoneans to register to vote. Voter registration coupled with the use of the TBG will increase access to the electoral process, and thus the political process, for the many visually-impaired voters in Sierra Leone.