Feeling the vote

Betty Motaung walks into Itireleng Workshop for the Blind on the arm of her husband, Isaac. The Motaungs live in a section of Ga-Rankuwa’s Zone 2 known as Difofung (“place of the blind”) because so many of the residents have impaired eyesight.

Today Itireleng is doubling as a polling station and a testing site for the new Braille ballot template, developed by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) after discussions last year with the South African National Council for the Blind (SANCB).

Similar templates are widely used internationally—most recently in the Indian and Indonesian elections. A Namibian version was piloted in 2004. The templates allow blind voters to go into the polling booth without an assistant and to cast their vote in secrecy.

The South African version features a slot into which the ballot is inserted. The voter “reads” in Braille the names and numbers of the political parties on the ballot beneath and a line of raised dots leads to a window where they make their mark. That’s the theory, but it didn’t quite work like that in Itireleng on Wednesday.

A helpful IEC official showed Betty the Braille template, but then accompanied her into the polling booth where she was asked to name her preferred party. She did so. The official then took a pen and made a mark in the appropriate window.

Was it just lack of awareness on the part of the IEC “helper” or a misguided attempt to show off the new Braille system to the media? Either way, the secrecy of Betty Motaung’s vote was compromised.

SANCB’s honorary president, William Rowland, told the Mail & Guardian that time had been “too tight” to train blind voters in the use of the new template system, but that it was still a positive move.

“There might be some difficulties, but that does not bury the great feeling that we are exercising a free vote and that we have a democracy,” he said.

SANCB plans to meet IEC officials after the elections to debrief them about the problems encountered by blind voters this time around and to discuss ways to improve the system in future.

Maybe in 2014 Betty Motaung’s vote will finally be secret.

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