ECtHR: Disabled voters can be required to use back entrance at polling places
Disabled voters can lawfully be required to enter polling places through a back entrance, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled.
In a “disappointing” ruling yesterday, the court said polling places and election procedures in Europe need to be accessible for disabled people, but accessibility does not require that all voters go through buildings’ front entrances.
The court found that Slovenia had discriminated against two wheelchair users with muscular dystrophy in a 2015 referendum on equal marriage because the courts had not allowed them to request accessible polling places ahead of the vote.
One of the applicants reported feeling “humiliated” after he found the main entrance of his polling station blocked by stairs and had to request help from passers-by, one of whom eventually pushed him up a narrow and steep ramp through a backdoor entrance used for rubbish.
The applicants had asked for adjustments in advance, but their requests were rejected by authorities and the Slovenian courts on the basis that voters were not allowed to complain before the election day.
The ECtHR ruled that denying them the right to ask for adjustments violated their rights.
The applicants were represented by Jurij Toplak, a law professor at the Alma Mater Europaea university in Slovenia and visiting professor at Fordham Law School in New York, working with Slovenian attorney Slavko Vesenjak.
Mr Toplak said: “This judgment has Europe-wide implications. About half of polling places in Europe are not accessible for wheelchairs or lack equipment for blind voters to cast secret ballot.
“The judgment is binding on all 47 countries in a way that the Strasbourg court sets standards for 47 European countries, including the UK, EU, and many others.
“This ruling should, and I believe it will, trigger legislative reforms throughout Europe to allow persons with disabilities to request adjustments to polling places.”
However, the lawyers noted that the court had fallen short of assuring that polling places in Europe would be fully accessible in the future.
Mr Vesenjak said: “The judgment is a blow to the equality of persons with disabilities. Accepting that they may be sent to the backside of buildings is disappointing. We will consider appealing to the European Court’s Grand Chamber.”
The Harvard Law School’s Project on Disability, NUI Galway, Equinet, and disability organisations submitted their expert opinion to the Strasbourg court during the proceedings.