San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Blind Voters Demand Right to Vote in Private

Of the swarms of voters who head to the polls on Sunday, at least five will be making history in more ways than one. A group of blind people, determined to show the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) how easy it would be to provide special ballots for the visually impaired so they don’t need assistance, will cast their votes using handmade Braille ballot sheets.

The Foundation for the Progress of Blind People organized the initiative, and has made sheets that can be placed over the official ballot; candidate information appears in Braille, and holes in the sheet allow the voter to mark an X in the correct spot on the ballot beneath.

If all goes according to plan, they’ll be the first blind voters in history to head into the voting booth unaccompanied – and though TSE officials have said they won’t allow the Braille sheets in voting booths, the group plans to plow ahead.

“If I have to go to jail so they can have a secret vote, so be it,” Alberto Cabezas, who is not visually impaired but is working to support the effort, told The Tico Times yesterday.

These efforts follow an announcement by the TSE that it lacked the time and infrastructure to provide Braille ballots, despite suits filed by visually impaired voters who say the existing system, which require them to state their preferences aloud, violates their constitutional rights.

For foundation member Osliam Castillo, this system is unacceptable in “a supposedly democratic country like Costa Rica.

“So we decided to act,” he told The Tico Times on Wednesday, showing off the handmade voting sheets. “The idea is to set a precedent.”

Now, blind voters have two options, according to Castillo: a public vote, in which voters state their preferences aloud to poll workers who mark the ballot in the voters’ stead, or an assisted vote, in which voters bring a family member or friend into the booth with them to mark the ballot.

Castillo, 28, a professional musician, has voted twice, both times with assistance. He said that “many blind people don’t want to vote” – not just because of the lack of privacy, but also because they can never be completely sure poll workers or friends will mark the ballot according to their expressed preferences.

This violates the right to a direct and secret vote granted by Article 93 of the Constitution, he added.

Cabezas, the only member of the foundation who is not visually impaired, told The Tico Times many other Latin American countries, including Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador, already offer their visually impaired citizens the means to vote in secret.

Seeking to change the situation here, foundation president Eric Chacón has filed complaints with the TSE and a suit before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), claiming the current system violates blind voters’ rights to privacy.

However, Hectór Fernández, Electoral Program Coordinator for the tribunal, told The Tico Times last week that the TSE doesn’t have the time or infrastructure to print and deliver Braille ballots (TT, Jan. 27).

Castillo said he and other foundation members decided to make the special ballots to show the tribunal it wouldn’t be that hard. Each set of three sheets, or plantillas – one each for the presidential, legislative and city council elections – cost only ¢750 ($1.50) to produce, Castillo said. A fellow member made various sets of the sheets in approximately two hours.

It’s impossible to estimate what the cost would be of providing such a ballot to all of the country’s 75,000 visually impaired potential voters, Cabezas said. The per-ballot cost would undoubtedly drop if they were machine-made on a mass scale.

Still, whatever the cost, “I can guarantee you it’s nothing compared to what the parties spend on their propaganda… propaganda that isn’t even accessible for many disabled people,” he added.

Castillo said he expects visually impaired voters to use the special sheets at the polling stations in Santo Domingo de Heredia, north of San José, and San Rafael de Alajuela, northwest of the capital. The foundation may produce additional plantillas – new sets must be produced for each canton, since legislative and city council candidates are different for each – if more interested voters call the foundation before the election.

The foundation is seeking notaries to document secret voting by visually impaired citizens on Sunday, so the foundation can bring this proof to authorities as they continue to lobby for equal rights, Cabezas said.

Interested notaries should contact the foundation at 836-6231. Visually impaired people who would like to participate in the secret vote should call 874-7374.

Asked what will happen if officials at the voting stations refuse to let voters bring the sheets into the voting booth with them, Castillo was ready for the question.

“They’d be violating the Constitution,” he said. “All public documents have to be accessible. The ballot is a public document.”

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