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Is it hard for blind people to vote in Germany?

August 13, 2020

One-time Eurovision contestant Corinna May has lost a court case in Bremen after she had trouble voting in a local election. But how easy is it for visually-impaired people to take part in German democracy?

Corinna May in court in July
Image: picture-alliance/M. Bahlo

In May 2019 in the German city-state of Bremen, local celebrity and 2002 German Eurovision Song Contest hopeful Corinna May did something she hadn't done for years — she headed out to vote.

May normally uses a postal vote, a common and straightforward option in Germany, but she ran out of time to mail her ballot, so she decided simply to vote in person.

At the polling station, she asked if she could bring her husband into the voting booth with her, but was told that this is not allowed. She declined an assistant from among the election officers because she said that this would compromise her privacy. In the end, May did not vote at all.

Corinna May and her Eurovision team
Corinna May made history as the first blind singer to take part in the Eurovision Song ContestImage: picture-alliance/Sven Simon

The reason is simple: May is among an estimated 145,000 people in Germany who are blind. Over a year after her botched effort to cast her ballot, a Bremen court threw out the case on Thursday.

While Germany was described as a "pioneer" of accessible voting for blind people within Europe by the European Blind Union (EBU), May's story shows that there are still big steps to be taken for blind people to exercise their democratic right in an equal and fair way.

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How did the case unfold?

The professional singer and disability rights activist initially took the case to the electoral review court, which threw out the case in November 2019 on the grounds that there were adequate provisions in place — May just hadn't taken advantage of them. May appealed the decision, and the case landed before the state constitutional court in Bremen.

But the constitutional court rejected her appeal, saying there is "no indication that blind or visually-impaired people would have been prevented from exercising their right to vote in a way that was relevant to election results."

A blind person uses a stencil to vote
A stencil is a common way in Germany for blind and visually-impaired people to voteImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Fiedler

Is May's case unique?

German law allows for blind people to vote with an assistant of their choice, but this is not the only way that visually-impaired voters can participate in elections.

The voting system allows anyone to register for stencil voting or a postal vote. Stencil voting, in which the EBU says Germany "leads the way" in Europe, is a method that allows visually impaired voters to use a plastic stencil to accurately pick out their candidate on the ballot paper.

"It is not that Germany does nothing for blind people, but the system is not completely accessible in every type of election," said Christiane Möller of the German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV), Germany's largest rights organization for visually-impaired people.

While these methods are common at federal elections, local elections in Germany are complicated by the fact that each state and city can choose the size and shape of their ballot paper, rendering a standard stencil impossible. Local elections are sometimes also not as well-equipped to deal with postal votes — a topic that US President Donald Trump has ensured remains mired in controversy.

Audio ballot papers can be rife with problems too, as the description of the procedure on the CD runs for four hours. Finding relevant information in such a long recording can be difficult and time-consuming.

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Issues of accessibility

For blind people, the problem goes further than just how people are treated on election day.

"Not all political parties shared all their manifesto information in a form that is accessible," Möller explained, referring to the same European vote. "Only a few used audio formats and Braille."

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European Union-wide anti-discrimination legislation in 2004 enshrined in law the rights of blind people in Germany to have equal access to voting and candidate information.

But DBSV says this means that even if visually-impaired people are catered for on election day, they may be missing out on key information about the candidates who are standing for office.

"Maybe in the future, there will be electronic ballots in Germany, which would bring full accessibility – but I don't see that happening soon," Möller said.

If there are difficulties for voters, it may be even more difficult for those with visual impairments who want to stand as candidates with visual impairments.

Verena Bentele
Paralympian Verena Bentele was made commissioner for people with disabilities in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"For those campaigning to be elected, the issue is not to do with accessibility once you are elected, but instead with the process of campaigning," Möller explained. Once a representative is in office, German rules assert that all people should have equal access in their jobs — but on the campaign trail, things are different.

For this reason, only a few candidates with visual impairments have made it to public office in Germany. In 2014 former Paralympic athlete Verena Bentele, who is registered blind, made headlines when she was appointed to be the national commissioner for people with disabilities – but she did not have to fight in a popular election campaign to get the role.

There are currently no representatives at a federal level who are registered as blind or partially-sighted.

Read more: The problems of blind people in India in coronavirus times

Federal elections: One year to go

Now that the Bremen constitutional court ruled the election valid, the federal constitutional court may look at the case. A second case regarding the European election at a European court is still awaiting a verdict. The verdict seems unlikely to sway May's fight for justice.

The next national election in Germany will take place in just over a year, and activists hope they will be the most accessible ever for people with visual impairments.

The DBSV is committed to "influencing the political process from start to finish" — but this can only happen with the support and improved awareness from all levels of democracy.

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.