Sunday, February 22, 2009

Disabled people in Turkey want accessible polling booths so they can vote in March elections

From Today's Zaman in Turkey:

According to the address-based registration database (AKS), 48,265,644 people will be eligible to vote in the March 29 local elections, but 4 million of the 8.5 million disabled citizens eligible to vote will not be able to do so because of inaccessible polling booths.

Şükrü Boyraz, head of the Turkish Association of the Handicapped (TSD), said disabled people are upset that one of their basic rights -- the right to vote -- is being curtailed and that they are being completely ignored.

The head of Turkey's Cerebral Palsy Association, Ramazan Baş, has petitioned a court to remove voting obstacles for the disabled by setting up polling booths on the entry-level floor of the building where polls are to be set up. "Voting is an inalienable right in a democratic order and while citizens are continuously encouraged to participate in elections, measures have not been taken to resolve accessibility problems for Turkey's disabled citizens," he said.

Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy for İstanbul Lokman Ayva, who is himself visually impaired, said voting is the sole instrument for a physically disabled person to express himself. Noting that the disabled do not have the money or the ability to organize a protest, Ayva said: "The only place we can express ourselves is at the voting booth, but this right is anti-democratically being blocked. I had submitted a motion for an inquiry, but I think it was put off by the Supreme Election Board [YSK]."

Noting that every vote counts and affects the outcome of the elections, Ayva said voting must be made accessible for disabled citizens, who feel their rights are being restricted. Calling on officials for support, disabled citizens say they want to be able to vote for leaders who are going to provide them efficient services.

Boyraz also drew attention to complaints of the disabled about the physical structure of cities and argued that the needs of the disabled are completely overlooked in the construction of buildings, especially in government buildings where voting takes place as well as sidewalks. Of the 8.5 million disabled in Turkey, 2.5 million use a wheelchair.

"If half of these people are eligible to vote, that would mean 1.5 million votes. More than a million voters will not be able to participate in the election because of the inaccessibility of voting booths," Boyraz said.

Some disabled citizens who refuse to be left out of the elections have friends and families carry them to upper levels where voting boxes are located to cast their vote. Boyraz noted that some political parties provide transportation services for disabled citizens on election day. The disabled are so grateful they often change their mind at the last minute and vote for the party that gave them the opportunity to vote. Some political parties do this intentionally to win votes.

The TSD has turned to the Supreme Election Board (YSK) on several occasions to improve poll accessibility, and each time the YSK has said the next elections would be different.

"But it hasn't changed much," Boyraz said, adding: "A measure the YSK introduced was to have the ballot box carried to the ground floor where disabled citizens could vote. However, I have yet to see 20 poll station workers stop everything and bring the ballot box to the lower floors. It is very hard for them to do this when there long lines upstairs. The best alternative is to set up ballot boxes on entry levels for disabled citizens."

Baş also recalled the YSK decision on voting-related issues of disabled citizens and said that according to the YSK decision, the ballot box was to be carried to the entry-level floor for disabled citizens that had applied to the YSK in advance for this type of service.

"We have never seen this happen, though," Baş said, adding that there is no law requiring the disabled to turn to the YSK to make voting accessible. Baş is awaiting a response from the YSK on whether disabled voters need to re-apply to make voting accessible in the upcoming elections.

Citizens eligible to vote but who do not do so face fines, though this sanction is seldom enforced. Many disabled want to vote but cannot, leading Baş to file a lawsuit claiming that disabled citizens should not be held accountable for not voting. A decision has yet to be made on the case.

Visually impaired citizens also experience accessibility problems at voting booths. There are many among the 450,000 visually impaired citizens who are eligible to vote. Blind citizens vote with the help of another person, but this defeats the purpose of casting a secret ballot, said Süha Sağlam, the president of an association for the visually impaired called Altı Nokta Körler Derneği.

Blind citizens could vote in secret if the ballot paper at least featured the emblem of the party in Braille lettering, Sağlam said and added that electronic voting could solve this problem completely.

Hakan Ercan, 34 years old and visually impaired, said: "In the last elections, I voted at the Fatih Ahmet Rasim Elementary School. My booth was on the third floor. I asked for the ballot box to be brought down, but the officials didn't comply. The mukhtar and some people carried me upstairs so I could vote. I don't want to go to this election, but I am worried about being fined."