The announcement of the election date February 25th 2011, brings a welcome opportunity for Irish citizens to have our say about the future of our country. Set against a backdrop of continuous economic and political instability, many hope this election will bring a new era in Irish politics. Today, signals the launch of the political parties campaigns, with current and potential candidates refining complex policy issues, such as the IMF/EU bailout, into doorstep language. As the campaigning intensifies over the next few weeks, this short post offers some ideas for ensuring that election campaigns are accessible and inclusive to all Irish voters. Three main points are considered, they are keep political jargon to a minimum and use plain English, produce campaign material in accessible formats and make sure venues for public forums and debates are easy to access.
As candidates campaign over the coming weeks, they should give serious thought to how they make their messages accessible and inclusive. Every vote counts and therefore voter accessibility needs must be considered. In many cases, the work of making election campaign material accessible is left to the many non- profit organisations who lobby and advocate on behalf of marginalized groups. Yet campaign directors who have amassed what some commentators call a “treasure chest”, rarely if ever give thought to Irish voters who cannot access information in the traditional ways.
Under Irish law, the right to vote is covered under Article 16.2. However when it comes to exercising this right, barriers exist for many Irish citizens, particularly people with disabilities. These barriers exist throughout the whole campaigning process and not solely on polling day. From the outset our traditional ways of campaigning, for example, manifestos, door stepping, TV and radio interviews can exclude a wide range of people. For example, the majority of print, Internet sites and TV media are inaccessible to many people with visual impairments. In particular, the growth of the Internet and new technologies, for example, facebook, as a campaigning tool can also exclude a large number of people, including those with visual impairments, older generations and people living in poverty with no access to these technologies. In addition, complex language, often used throughout campaigning can exclude people with literacy difficulties, people from new communities and also people with intellectual disabilities.
Some simple tips gathered from Ireland and abroad can provide those responsible for campaigning some ideas to put into practice during the election campaigns. These are:
Less political jargon, more plain English. It is common sense that people casting a vote understand what our future leaders are promising to do. Therefore those responsible for organising and running these campaigns must ensure all campaign material uses plain English guidelines. By using these guidelines, political information can be presented in a clear, efficient way and someone can understand it the first time they read or hear it. This makes good sense for any reader and in particular people with literacy difficulties or people who speak English as a second language. A recent example of making issues accessible to people with literacy difficulties was the referendum held in Sudan . The voting paper had a symbol of a single hand to vote for secession and a clasped hand to vote for unity. Also, closer to home, in the last few Irish elections, photos of the candidates appeared alongside the candidate names, assisting those with literacy difficulties.
Campaign material in accessible formats. This is also key to ensuring inclusion during the campaign process. It is particularly relevant for people with disabilities. Article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities asks that all information intended for the general public is made available to people with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies. Article 29 of the Convention provides that people with disabilities political rights and the opportunity to enjoy them are on an equal basis with others and shall undertake “to ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others”. Similarly, the Disability Act of 2005 provides that information is made accessible to people with disabilities. Organisations such as the National Disability Authority and the National Council of the Blind provide useful advice on how to make printed material accessible, see here and here.
Accessible venues for public forums and debates. Finally, access to where the debates and public meetings take place is important to ensure that campaigning is inclusive. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities has compiled a recent checklist for accessible election campaigns see here.
The General Election 2011 has been referred to as the most significant of our times. Ensuring inclusive and accessible campaigning could help bring those who are traditionally disenfranchised into the political marketplace .
 For the most part of this post, the author has used plain English guidelines
 These guidelines are available from the National Adult Literacy Agency: http://www.nala.ie/catalog/writing-and-design-tips
For general information on elections, governance and democracy, see here for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems
See here for a project called Welcome to the Every Vote counts! A project set up to include the voice of people with learning disabilities
See here for Mencap’s easy to read guide on elections and voting