Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Why 500,000 disabled people won't get to vote in May

  • There is a 500,000-strong gap where disabled voters in the European Parliament elections should be (Photo: stephen jones)

In 2007, when Adolfo Barroso tried to vote for the first time, he was told his name did not appear on the voting list.

To have it added, the Spanish citizen was told, he would need to take a test: What is the speed of light? Who was Catherine the Great?

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Between 23 and 26 May, hundreds of millions of Europeans will head to the polls to elect the next members of the European Parliament.

Some will also be voting in national elections held at the same time.

Yet, around 500,000 persons with disabilities will not be able to join their friends, family members, colleagues and neighbours in exercising this most basic of democratic rights.

The reason? They, like Adolfo, are deprived of their legal capacity.

Legal capacity is the law's recognition of the decisions that a person takes. Without it, a person cannot make legally binding decisions, such as getting married or signing an employment contract.

But in most EU member states, being deprived of your legal capacity can have another consequence: losing your right to vote.

And not being able to vote means many persons with disabilities lose their say over which leaders have the power to make choices that affect their daily lives.

On 26 February, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published research showing that 18 European Union member states prevent some or all people deprived of legal capacity from voting in European parliament elections.

Sometimes this is automatic: everyone without legal capacity is denied the right to vote. In others, it is a decision made case-by-case, based on an assessment by a judge or medical practitioner.

Things are gradually improving.

Since FRA first studied this issue in 2010, Belgium, Czechia, Croatia, Denmark, Spain and Slovakia have all loosened or removed restrictions on the right to vote in European parliament elections for people deprived of legal capacity.

These reforms give tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more people the right to participate in elections on an equal basis.

This progress results from different voices coming together to demand change.

Small steps

In Slovakia, the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the law tying the right to vote to legal capacity was unconstitutional.

Just last week, the German Federal Constitutional Court issued a similar decision on voting in national elections. In Spain and Czechia, civil society organisations joined forces to demand the restoration of voting rights for all.

But in many member states, more is needed.

Governments should ensure that the right to vote is not linked to legal capacity. Nothing less is required if European countries are to live up to their responsibilities under the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This is not a question of policy priorities but of commitments under international law.

As we draw close to one of the world's biggest democratic elections, it is a good time to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in.

For me the answer is clear: one where everyone can play their part in shaping the future course of the European Union. This includes making sure that people deprived of legal capacity can vote alongside everyone else.

Adolfo cast his first vote in 2018, more than a decade after his first attempt.

I hope many more like him will soon have the opportunity to do the same.

Adolfo Barroso shared his experience with the European Disability Forum

Michael O'Flaherty is director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

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