Protecting every person's ballot

Feb 27, 2018

© UNDP Sierra Leone/Lilah Gaafar

“I will act with integrity and honesty, with the Commission’s vision of promoting democracy and good governance always in mind as I carry out my assigned duties and responsibilities.

With his hand on his heart, James Abramham George takes his oath of office – two weeks before Sierra Leone go to the polls to vote in Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council Elections.

Bonthe Island to Freetown, and with UNDP support, he is one of nineteen Assistant Voter Education and Training Officers working with the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to ensure persons with disabilities know how to vote on 7 March 2018.

James, who studied Peace and Conflict Studies at Fourah Bay College for four years, recalls facing eight flights of stairs everyday to attend classes. “It’s really challenging. There are many buildings that are not disable friendly – if you have to move three or four times a day, you begin to feel your knees ache.”

“I didn’t focus on the challenges, that’s why I’m here today. I have patience.”

Wherever possible, polling centres are on premises that are accessible to wheelchairs and to those who face challenges with mobility. Ramps will be used where premises are not wheelchair-accessible; and every polling station will have at least one screen that is lower, in relation to the height of wheelchairs and for those who need to sit down while completing their ballot papers.

As an Assistant Voter Education and Training Officer (AVETO) he will maintain neutrality, serve as a focal point for all persons with disability issues in his district, and provide one on one voter education with a particular focus on explaining the use of the Tactile Ballot Guide to the blind and visually impaired.

Following a survey conducted by UNDP, 90% of disability organizations in all districts of the country recommended employing people with disabilities in the National Electoral Commission. 100% of blind and visually challenged persons requested a Tactile Ballot Guide.

A Tactile Ballot Guide is a folder into which ballot paper can be inserted. It has raised text and several box-shaped openings, representing candidates, allowing blind and visually impaired voters to correctly mark their ballot papers without assistance from others.

On election day, for the first time ever, these guides will be used throughout Sierra Leone and will be found in every polling station nationwide.

Introducing the AVETOS to their roles, responsibilities, the guiding principles of the NEC, polling steps, and the role of the media and observers, NEC Chief of Gender and Disability, Christiana O Reilly led the sensitization program, assisted by UNDP Inclusion and Gender Adviser, Annetta Flanigan and Thomas Alieu, who has been advising UNDP and the NEC on disability issues ahead of 2018’s landmark elections.

Mr. Alieu who lost his sight at the tender age of five has prepared a set of frequently asked questions on the Tactile Ballot Guide in braille. They have now been distributed to the AVETOs and to the District Electoral Offices to pass on to blind and visually impaired voters.

“Mechanisms are now in place that ensure the blind and visually impaired can vote independently. In the past, these persons voted with the aid of others.”

“This way, their vote will not be misguided. I am optimistic with this system in place but we must still engage in robust sensitization processes.”

According to the National Electoral Commission, it would be “difficult for a country to call itself a democracy without maintaining a participatory and inclusive political environment in its policy,” and it is through this program and with thanks to funds from Canada, Ireland, the UK, the EU and UNDP, that the National Electoral Commission has been able to respond to the needs of persons with disabilities in Sierra Leone - enabling an inclusive electoral process and protecting every person’s ballot paper on 7 March 2018. 

The sensitization program took place from 12- 20 Feb in Kenema, Bo, Makeni, Port Loko, Waterloo, and Freetown.

Photo essay here. 

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