In the United States, all voting places, procedures, and ballots are required by law to be accessible to persons with disabilities. These requirements were put into effect by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, the same requirements do not exist in Europe. In roughly half of the democracies in Europe, accessibility for polling stations is not required. This means that millions of disabled people in Europe are either not able to vote in elections, or they are forced to do so in extremely difficult conditions. For example, they are often forced to vote on the street, in the rain or snow, and without secrecy.
Slovenians are Taking Action
The lack of the accessibility of voting stations has become a hot button issue in the nation of Slovenia in recent years. In 2015, two disabled Slovenian people who use wheelchairs asked the government to make all voting places accessible in all future elections. These requests were denied.
Following the denial of their requests, they filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) claiming that they were discriminated against. As of January 2020, the court decided to move forward with these cases. These cases were two of fewer than 1,000 cases moved forward for a judgment by the court out of roughly 60,000 applications that it gets every year. Now, seven judges will make rulings on these cases.
Franc Toplak (born in 1937) and Iztok Mrak (born in 1983) are the two individuals who filed applications with the ECHR. Both of these individuals have muscular dystrophy and were unable to vote in many elections due to a lack of accessibility. Franc Toplak died in 2019, but his two daughters are continuing the process in his honor.
“Our goal is to make accessible every polling place in Europe”
Jurij Toplak, a disability law expert, the head of the Human Rights Center at the Alma Mater Europaea university, and a visiting professor at Fordham University School of Law, represented both Franc Toplak and Iztok Mrak in all court proceedings. Together with attorney Slavko Vesenjak, he wrote both applications with the ECHR.
The Human Rights Center at the Alma Mater Europeaea university was founded to assist victims of human rights violations from across Europe in their procedures before the ECHR and the European Court of Justice.
Over a decade ago, he started by talking to the management bodies of most European democracies. “We informed them about the UN Convention requirements, international standards, and best practices. Some implemented them, and others just ignored them.” Then he focused on strategic litigation to fight discrimination on national and European levels. “Our goal is to make every polling place in Europe accessible in five years. To achieve this, the European Court’s judgment is decisive.”
Involvement of Major Disability Organizations
The Toplak and Mrak cases have garnered support amongst major disability organizations from around the world. Several organizations are preparing to submit Amicus Curiae briefs to the ECHR. These briefs will be attempts by the organizations to convince the court to rule in favor of the applicants.
Another organization that threw its support behind the cases was the Slovenian Disability Rights Association. This association also submitted a third-party intervention. The president of this association, Sebastjan Kamenik, who is blind, said: “It is a shame that the UN Convention has been in force for twelve years and I still cannot vote independently and by secret ballot.“
Recently, the court invited the authorities and the applicants to settle the case. However, they rejected the settlement offer due to a desire to get a judgment which improves the lives of millions. Mrak said: “We asked the European Court to rule that each person with disabilities, should be able to come to the polling station through the main entrance and cast their vote independently and by secret ballot.”
A Landmark Ruling
Whatever the European Court of Human Rights decides about the Toplak and Mrak cases, it will be a landmark ruling. Millions of disabled Europeans will be impacted by the court’s decision. There are over one million polling stations in Europe’s 47 member states. At least half of them, if not all, will be affected by this ruling.
If the court rules in favor of the applicants, then massive changes will have to take place at these polling stations to make them accessible to disabled people. In many areas, there are either zero or very few polling stations that people with disabilities can use. For example, in Maribor, in 2011, there were 114 polling stations in the city, and only one of these was accessible to disabled people.
If the court rules in favor of the applicants, millions of polling places across Europe will add ramps, lower ballot boxes, door wedges, sidewalks, disability parking areas, and other features to make them accessible to individuals with disabilities.
“Persons with disabilities from around the world are praying that the top European court rules in favor of the applicants and that disabled people in Europe can finally stop being discriminated against in elections,” Mr. Kamenik said.
There is no anticipated date of the court hearing as the court meets in closed chambers with no public hearing. The court has collected all the documents from the parties, and will just issue a decision. It is very unpredictable when this will happen. It may happen later in 2020, but it may also happen in 2021 or 2022 or 2023.
The best way to support this case is to spread the word. Please share this article on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We’re hoping this raised awareness will encourage the court to issue its ruling in 2020 and not in 2021, 2022, or 2023.
Article by: Bennett O’Brien, freelance journalist from Massachusetts