For the first time, around 55,000 people with sight loss are being facilitated to cast their ballots in secret in local and European elections here.
But disability campaigners and the National Council for the Blind have said they are concerned that many of the electors concerned will be unable to vote independently despite the availability of tactile voting templates.
Tactile plastic templates, which are superimposed on the ballot papers, were first used in last year's abortion referendum. They were introduced following a 2017 High Court ruling that the state was in breach of its own legal requirement to extend the secret ballot to blind and vision impaired electors.
Last year's presidential election was the first time that templates were used to accommodate more than one choice on a ballot paper here. Robbie Sinnott, who took the legal action, has welcomed a modification of the template which will allow today's voters to pull a "wing" of Velcro across any openings in the template through which they have already written a voting preference on the ballot paper. He says this reduces the risk of the voter writing two or more preferences opposite one candidate's name.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has published a list of freephone numbers corresponding to each Euro constituency and all 32 local authorities have provided the same facility for each council area.
The Freephone 1800 numbers for the 3 European Constituencies are:
Dublin Constituency – 1800 200 246
South Constituency – 1800 300 103
Midlands-North-West Constituency – 1800 805 821
The Freephone 1800 numbers for the Local Elections Constituencies are here.
Before going to the polls and inside the polling booth, the voter is entitled to call the relevant number to hear a recorded message listing the name, party, address and occupation of each candidate in the order in which they appear on the ballot paper. The template is embossed with numbers in descending order to guide the voter to their preferred candidate or candidates. The order of candidates is also indicated in Braille on the template.
However, Robbie Sinnott is disappointed that the Department is not allowing voters with sight loss to use the "voiceover accessibility" setting on their iPhones to access a list of voting preferences that they could email to themselves before going to the polling station.
"They allow me to show the Presiding Officer my polling card on my iPhone," says the founder of the Blind Legal Alliance. So he asks, why not extend that facility to helping him, for example, to identify with a stroke of a finger which of the 19 openings in the template he should mark 1,2,3 etc in the Dublin Euro constituency.
Meanwhile, the National Council for the Blind of Ireland has expressed concern that people living with sight loss will be unable to vote independently today because of the confusion that is likely to arise from using at least three ballot papers.
In a statement on NCBI's website, spokesman Kevin Kelly recognised what he called the strides undertaken by the Department to introduce tactile templates. But he criticised what he called the lack of coordinated information to assist people who are blind and vision impaired. He singled out the delay in local authorities and the department in putting in place their freephone numbers and the limited promotion of the facility.
He acknowledged that administrators were challenged by the appearance of final lists of candidates three weeks in advance of polling saying it made it "virtually impossible to have the freephone numbers and online resources available in a timely fashion to allow someone to familiarise themselves with the candidates running in their locality".
Mr Kelly said it is imperative that serious consideration is given to alternative means of voting for people who are blind and vision impaired.
" NCBI believes the only truly independent means for a blind or vision impaired person to cast their ballot is either by telephone or electronically. Negative experiences with electronic voting in the past cannot be allowed to prevent the almost 55,000 people living with sight loss from exercising their right to a secret ballot," he said.
He added that NCBI is looking forward to engaging constructively with the Department as part of the existing Working Group on Accessible Voting to realising that ambition.