A Vote for All: Elections in the Dominican Republic Show Increase in Access

The May 20 presidential election in the Dominican Republic that resulted in the election of Danilo Medina highlighted the increased effort made to raise awareness of including persons with disabilities in the political process. As a result of this drive to increase awareness and access for this population, disabled persons organizations across the country reported an increase in the participation of persons with disabilities.

IFES has been in the island nation since February working with local organizations and the election commission, the Junta Central Electoral (JCE), so all citizens have access to the ballot. IFES Chief of Party Cristina Francisco talks to us about Election Day.

How was turnout on Election Day? Is it known whether there was greater participation by voters with disabilities?

A total of 4,566,838 people turned out to vote for the presidential election – 70.23 percent of registered voters. For this election, IFES worked with a number of disabled persons organizations and their members ahead of the election. Anecdotal evidence and information from observations conducted by IFES and partner La Red tell us that participation of persons with disabilities was higher than it has been in previous electoral cycles. According to members of disabled persons organizations, it is believed that this is due to the motivation and encouragement persons with disabilities received during regional forums and workshops implemented through IFES projects in the Dominican Republic. Additionally, IFES and the JCE made an unprecedented effort to promote active participation of over 100 persons with disabilities as facilitators, who provide information on where to vote on Election Day.

For the first time ever, observers witnessed the access given to persons with disabilities and poll workers were told about the needs of this population. How did this make a difference?

IFES and La Red led an observation effort that included 22 persons with different disabilities, including myself and six IFES colleagues, which focused specifically on inclusion and access for persons with disabilities in the electoral and political process. In this effort, 40 polling stations located in 10 different regions across the country were observed. General observations include:

  • In the last months leading up to Election Day, the JCE collaborated closely with IFES, its partner La Red and other representatives of the disabilities sector to mainstream inclusion of persons with disabilities in the elections.
  • Persons with disabilities, for the most part, were given priority to vote.
  • Polling centers had many stairs, narrow doorways and/or were located on upper floors of buildings.
  • In larger polling centers, like baseball stadiums, there were too many polling stations in the location, making it very crowded and difficult to maneuver – however, poll workers were helpful in offering assistance and helping voters enter the polling center.
  • The plantilla, a cardboard folder with holes that guide blind voters to the candidate of their choice, was made available. Unfortunately, many poll workers were not aware of the use and/or availability of the plantilla and so did not offer it to voters. Additionally, not all polling stations had the plantilla. In some polling stations that did have it, if blind voters arrived with a family member, the plantilla was not offered.
  • Voting booths were too high for wheelchair users to reach so voters in wheelchairs voted in their laps; when permitted by the president of the polling station. This situation allowed others, in some instances, to see how the person in the wheelchair voted.
  • The ballot box was sometimes located on a chair or table, so wheelchair users could not place their ballot in the box unassisted.

Who were the other groups observing the election?

Aside from the individuals who observed accessibility of the vote for persons with disabilities, there were also more than 3,000 observers from Citizen Participation – the local chapter of Transparency International. Additionally, there were observers from other regional electoral management bodies, the Organization of American States, Center for Electoral Assistance and Promotion, International IDEA and IFES.

In what other ways did IFES help increase access to persons with disabilities?

Among the very exciting projects we implemented were organizing workshops, in cooperation with La Red, to raise awareness about the political rights of persons with disabilities.

We also facilitated the interaction between the election management body, the JCE and 18 disabled persons organizations, which resulted in the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) showing their commitment to increasing access for this population. A number of important actions were taken thanks to this MoU, including the production of the plantilla that allowed persons with visual impairments to vote unassisted if they chose, and recruitment of persons with disabilities as election verifiers in the election verification campaign. This campaign encouraged Dominicans to confirm the accuracy of their information ahead of Election Day so they could also learn the exact location of their voting center.

The JCE also involved persons with disabilities in their public service announcements, which welcomed and encouraged all citizens to cast their ballot on Election Day.  Further, a forum between presidential candidates and representatives of disabled persons organizations was facilitated to encourage candidates and the future president to make a reform of the Disabilities Law a priority in the next administration.