Draft guidance for Returning Officers: Assistance with voting for disabled voters (statutory consultation)

Understanding the barriers to voting for disabled people

By identifying and understanding the physical, psychological and information barriers disabled people may face when voting, you will be better able to make appropriate arrangements to help support them.

Some of the barriers and challenges disabled voters face include:

  • Not having accessible information about the voting process
  • Written instructions not being available in plain English or easy read format
  • Lack of information about a companion’s ability to assist with voting
  • Lack of information on the experience of voting at a polling station causing anxiety about things like:
    • getting to the polling station, especially if it is for the first time
    • being able to find and access the polling station

    • knowing what will happen once there

    • knowing what the process for voting is

    • the possibility of lots of people being there at the same time

    • the possibility that there will be lots of noise

    • feeling rushed to make decisions quickly

    • queueing

    • previously having had a negative experience in the polling station

  • The building/polling station not being accessible

    • For example, if there are steps or the layout inside is unsuitable for wheelchairs to access

  • Accessible instructions not being available to people with:

    • Visual impairments or blindness

    • Hearing impairment or hearing loss

    • Dyslexia

    • Learning disabilities

  • Lack of support available to enable effective communication with polling station staff

  • Support or auxiliary aids not always available to help voters use a pen/pencil

  • Seating or other arrangements not being available to support those unable to stand in a queue

  • Polling station staff being unaware of neurodivergence and hidden disabilities

Providing equipment at the polling station that enables or makes voting easier for disabled voters

This section outlines the equipment that should always be provided at polling stations to help reduce or remove known barriers and ensure that voting is as accessible as possible for disabled voters.

It also highlights further additional equipment that it may be appropriate to provide if you identify or are made aware of specific needs of disabled voters.

Information for voters

To help voters understand the voting process and how to mark their ballot paper you must provide:

  • A notice inside and outside the polling station providing instructions on how to vote at the election.13
  • A notice in each polling booth providing information on how to mark the ballot paper at the election.14
  • At least one large sample copy of the ballot paper must be displayed inside the polling station15 , ideally in a well-lit location where voters can easily see it before being issued with their ballot paper. Large print sample ballot papers displayed clearly in the station will assist voters who are partially sighted and also voters who would like some time to look at the ballot paper before entering the booth.
  • An enlarged hand-held copy of the ballot paper. This can be given to voters who are partially sighted to take into the polling booth for reference when marking their ballot paper.

You must consider whether it is appropriate to make notices more accessible to a wider range of voters16 by providing them in alternative languages and formats, e.g. in Braille, languages other than English or Welsh, in pictorial formats17 or in audible form.18  We are developing a resource to support you to design and produce prescribed polling station notices in an accessible formats and will update this guidance with a link once available.

As well as meeting the minimum statutory requirements, you should also make any additional sample copies and enlarged copies of the ballot paper resources easily available and visible in the polling station – keeping them in full view and clearly marked will help to make sure that voters can access them easily.

Equipment to support voters to participate

You have a duty to provide each polling station with such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote independently and in secret.19 We have a duty to give guidance in relation to your duty to provide this equipment.20 You must have regard to this guidance when discharging your duty to provide appropriate equipment but it is ultimately for you as RO to decide the arrangements and equipment that are reasonable to enable disabled voters across your area to cast their vote independently and in secret.

This guidance aims to support you by highlighting the types of equipment that may help to remove barriers to voting for disabled voters. Factors unique to your local area - relating to the size and scale of polling stations, or specific requirements of your local electorate, may shape the approach you decide to take.

Decisions about appropriate equipment should be carefully considered, transparent and regularly reviewed.

Additional funding will be provided to you by the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to support the delivery of accessible elections. The UK Government will provide further details and guidance on how the funding will be made available, including for national polls, in due course.

Through our work with civil society organisations and charities we have identified a range of equipment that can help to overcome the known barriers faced by disabled people. Many of these items are readily available at limited cost and can have a real and positive impact on the experience of voters in the polling station. The following equipment should, as a minimum, be provided in all polling stations to support disabled voters:

  • Chair/seating – this provides a place to rest for voters who cannot stand for long periods and a seat for voters who would like to take some time to think before entering the polling booth.
  • Magnifiers – these increase the size of the text on a document, providing support for voters who are visually impaired to vote independently.
  • Tactile voting device – this provides support for voters who are visually impaired to mark their vote on the ballot paper in the correct place.
  • Polling booth at wheelchair level – helps to ensure that voters who use a wheelchair are able access a lower writing surface to ensure they can cast their vote in secret in a booth that is accessible.
  • Badges identifying polling station staff – these help voters more easily identify who is a member of staff in the polling station and is someone who can be approached for assistance. The type of badge and text used can be tailored to suit individual local circumstances. For example, you could provide polling station staff with a badge that gives their role, their first name and happy to help.
  • Pencil grip – these can help voters with dexterity impairments to more easily hold and use a pencil independently.
  • Ramps (for buildings with steps) – these support access to a polling station for voters who use a wheelchair or have difficulty using steps.
  • Temporary alerters or temporary doorbells for any doors that are required to remain shut during the day (for example, fire doors) – these provide a way for voters to let polling station staff know that they need assistance to open the door so they can access the polling station. These do not need to be permanently fixed or installed in a building used as a polling station but can be temporarily placed at an accessible level on a table or chair next to any doors that must remain closed.
  • Appropriate lighting – some polling station venues have good lighting but others may need additional lighting at the desk; to ensure that voters can clearly see the faces of staff, and in the polling booths; to support voters with visual impairments to be able to read and complete the ballot paper.
  • Reserved parking spaces reserved for disabled voters (where parking is available at the venue) – this ensures that disabled voters can park as close as possible to the polling station.

You are not limited to providing only the equipment shown in the list above, and indeed should not reduce or remove any equipment that you have provided to support disabled voters at polling stations in your area at previous polls.

There are other types of equipment that it might also be appropriate to provide in polling stations to support voters to participate. Examples of additional provision you could make include the following:

  • Hearing induction loop – these provide support to voters who wear hearing aids to communicate in the polling station. Some buildings have an induction loop installed as standard, in which case you should make use of it, and where this is not one available then a portable hearing loop could be used.
  • Audio devices – audio devices are pieces of equipment that reproduce, record or process sound. An audio device can be used together with the tactile voting device enabling blind and partially sighted voters to listen to candidate lists and then mark their ballot paper independently.
  • Information available in easy read format - Easy read refers to the presentation of text in an accessible, easy to understand format. It is often useful for people with learning disabilities and may also be beneficial for people with other conditions affecting how they process information.

The equipment and resources you provide to support disabled voters should be kept in full view and clearly marked so that they can be identified and accessed easily.

Making decisions about providing additional support and equipment for voters

As RO you may receive requests for additional support or equipment to be provided, beyond those that you already have or are planning to put in place.

For example, you may be informed by a voter with a particular type of impairment that they remain at a substantial disadvantage (i.e. a disadvantage that is more than minor or trivial) despite your adjustments, as they have additional needs.

In such instances, you should consider the request and decide if it is reasonable to provide additional support and/or equipment to remove the substantial disadvantage the voter has identified and brought to your attention. There is no set process in law for how you will determine what equipment is reasonable. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission publish advice about making reasonable adjustments in the workplace. While not written specifically for Returning Officers, it may be useful in helping you determine whether a request is reasonable.

Each request should be considered on its merits and with a view to continuing to support the right of every voter to be able to cast their vote. When making your decision about whether a request is reasonable, there are a range of factors you should take into account, including:

  • Whether providing the additional support or equipment that has been requested will enable or make voting easier for disabled voters?
  • How easy or practical is it to provide the additional support or supply the equipment requested? For example:
    • Is the equipment readily available for purchase?
    • Are the cost implications reasonable?
    • Are there any more cost-effective or readily available alternatives?
    • Is the equipment single-use or can it be used for future polls?
  • Is the requested equipment portable and can it be transferred to another polling station if required (for example, due to a last-minute polling station change)?
  • Are there any training implications to consider in order for staff to provide the required support or to support the use of the equipment?
  • Have you engaged with individuals at your local authority with expertise in equality, diversity and inclusion for advice?

You are not required to grant every request for additional support or equipment, but you should be able to demonstrate that you have given every request proper consideration using fair and consistent criteria. You should keep sufficient information about requests to enable you to review the effectiveness of your provision for disabled voters.

Retention of information when contacted by a disabled voter for additional support or equipment

Where you are contacted by a disabled voter asking for additional support or equipment, you may receive sensitive special category data about that individual and their specific needs. You will be considered the data controller for this sensitive data and it is your responsibility to ensure that you manage the processing of that data in line with data protection requirements including  ensuring that the individual is aware of how their data will be processed. 

You should take advice from your Data Protection Officer about what to do with the data once processed and whether you need to update any relevant privacy notices. More information on managing special category data can be found in our guidance on data protection.

Ensuring those working to support the poll are aware of accessibility needs

To help ensure that all voters are provided with equal access to voting and receive appropriate support, it is important that all of those who work to deliver the election or provide information to voters are aware of the needs of disabled people.

You should provide accessibility awareness training for all staff who interact with voters, including staff who support electoral services, to help improve their understanding of the needs of disabled voters and the importance of clear communication.

Working with external partners, we have developed resources that could help your staff to understand barriers to voting and experiences of disabled voters at the polling station including:

  • RNIB video which shares the experiences of voting in the polling station for those with sight loss
  • Mencap videos which share the experiences of Charlotte and Harry of voting in a polling station with a learning disability

You can take advice from your Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) officer or HR department on other accessibility awareness training that you could access.

Staff should also be made aware of the resources we have available on our website and YouTube channel to assist disabled voters with particular impairments to help with understanding about voting and what to expect at the polling station. For more information and updates about our resources we create you can subscribe to Roll Call our voter registration newsletter and your guide to supporting voter registration and participation.

In addition you could think about sourcing or developing evergreen resources that are not election specific and so can be used year round over multiple years in partnership with civil society organisations that advocate for and support their stakeholders on issues surrounding the accessibility of voting.

Training for polling station staff to support accessibility

It is also vital that your training for polling station staff addresses the importance of being aware of accessibility needs of voters at the polling station and what steps they should take to support them.

The actions and behaviours of polling station staff are key to making voters’ experience in the polling station a positive one. Simple things like offering assistance and listening to voters’ questions can make a real difference.

In addition to general awareness raising of accessibility needs, it is important that your training for polling station staff covers:

  • the barriers faced by disabled voters at the polling station and how polling station staff can help reduce them
  • awareness that not all disabilities are visible
  • the importance of considering the needs of the person, not a specific disability
  • awareness that some voters may have more than one impairment – for example, a visual impairment and dementia
  • the importance of clear communication about the voting process
  • the importance of clearly communicating that assistance is available if required
  • awareness of the equipment provided at the polling station to enable and make easier voting in the polling station for disabled voters, and how to use it
  • awareness that a companion assisting a voter can be anyone over the age of 18
  • awareness that disabled voters may have an assistance animal with them and that assistance animals should not be prevented from entering the polling station
  • awareness that voters with sight loss may use apps on their mobile phones or carry pocket-sized assistive equipment, such as video magnifiers, to help them read documents in the polling booth or in conjunction with a tactile voting device
  • awareness that the use of text to speech apps are acceptable for use in polling stations.

In our core guidance for Returning Officers for each type of election, we link to resources for training polling station staff which contain information about the role polling station staff have in ensuring that voting is accessible and the equipment that is available to support disabled voters on accessibility which you should highlight when briefing polling station staff.

Communicating the voting process and support available

There are a range of ways that you can provide and promote information about the voting process and support available to voters. The communications work you carry out can help to overcome some of the known barriers for disabled voters and can make a real difference to helping them participate with confidence.

You may hold contact details for disabled residents. Having access to these details provides you with an opportunity to communicate directly with disabled residents about accessibility at polling stations.

We will provide a suite of resources which can support you to promote information about the voting process and support available, including resources which will signpost to guidance on accessible communications. We will be working directly with disability organisations nationally to inform the resources we provide, and will look to build on these resources year-on-year as part of our ongoing evaluation and improvement work. We will update this guidance with links once the resources are available.

Providing information on the location of polling stations

Feedback from organisations representing disabled people is that some voters find it difficult to access information on polling station locations. We provide, in partnership with Democracy Club, a postcode look-up tool on our website.

To increase the visibility of this information, you should promote the postcode search tool as widely as possible. You could embed the tool on your own website, using the widget we’ve made available, or add a link to our website. You could also share the link with existing internal networks or external organisations you are working with and encourage them to share it with their stakeholders. Additionally, you could include the link on the notice of situation of polling stations. Should you need any further information or support in using the search tool, please visit Democracy Club’s website.

Providing advance information on voting at the polling station

To help overcome concerns and anxiety about what voting at the polling station will be like, you could provide a dedicated page on your website that contains accessible content to help voters who want to know more about voting at the polling station.

Your accessible web content could include:

  • information about the assistance and support available at the polling station including:
    • That a companion is able to assist a voter
    • That a Presiding Officer is able to help a voter
    • The type of equipment that will be available at polling stations
  • information about what to expect when voting at the polling station including:
    • Links to videos about voting in BSL and Makaton
    • Easy guides to voting videos by Mencap
    • When the station is likely to be busy and when it is likely to be quiet
    • Availability of quiet space

We will be developing a resource presenting information about voting written in an accessible way. You can use this resource to develop your own accessible web content to engage and raise awareness with voters. We will also host a range of voter facing resources and information about the voting process on our website which you can point electors to via a link on your web pages. We will update this guidance with links to the resources once they are available.

Including additional information on poll cards and making the information accessible

Although the content that must be included on poll cards is prescribed in legislation, you may also add further information that you think is appropriate.21 The only exception to this is for Northern Ireland local elections where the poll card is prescribed exactly and makes no allowance for any other information to be included.22

The Elections Act 2022 introduces other changes to the electoral process that need to be communicated to voters in advance of the poll. This will mean that for relevant elections the poll card may need to become a letter to enable the relevant information to be included. Using a different format of the poll card would also provide an opportunity for you to include additional information to voters about their polling station and the accessibility of the voting process. You could include a link to an accessible web page or provide a QR code on the poll card letter that takes the voter directly to a web page that provides information about the voting process or the equipment that will be available.

As some voters find the information provided on the poll card inaccessible, you should also think about how you can make the information contained on the poll card more accessible by additionally publishing it in an alternative way.

For example, you could put the poll card information on your website in an accessible format, compatible with screen readers. You could also make easy-read or large print versions available on request, and publicise this via the poll card itself and on your website. If you hold email addresses for voters, you could also email them the information - ensuring it is emailed in an accessible format. Sending these additional communications could also provide an opportunity to raise awareness about what will happen on polling day, what to expect in the polling station and the equipment that will be available.

Providing accessible sample ballot papers

Some voters may find it useful to look at the ballot paper in advance of going to the polling station to help them to prepare for the process of voting. You could provide sample ballot papers on your website to support this, and ensure that any you do provide are accessible to electors who use screen readers.

Providing information to political parties, candidates and agents about accessible voting at polling stations

You should include information in the briefings you provide for candidates and agents about the support and equipment available at polling stations. Candidates and agents may know individual voters who require support or specific equipment and can help ensure that they are aware of the support that is available for them and how they can access it.

Working with local networks and civil society organisations in your area

You may have existing relationships with networks of disability groups and civil society organisations. If you do not have these relationships, you may need to work with others who do, for example:

  • Social care providers
  • Equalities officers
  • Communications teams
  • Housing officers
  • Partnership/Community Engagement officers
  • County Voluntary Councils/People First Groups (Wales)

Establishing relationships with disability groups and civil society organisations that are active in your local area can be beneficial as they can advise you on specific steps you can take to improve the accessibility of voting at polling stations in certain locations. They can also provide advice on the types and methods of communication you should use to promote the equipment and support available at polling stations as well as information on elections more generally.

These local organisations may also have access to specialist equipment which may benefit disabled voters locally with particular impairments and needs which you could borrow or hire. Local organisations and partners may also be able to advise you on the types of resource or support you could provide to reduce barriers to voting for disabled voters.

We are also developing a caseworker briefing resource that you can use to support your engagement with local disability groups to provide information to voters in your local authority area.