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Electoral Insight – Persons with Disabilities and Elections

Electoral Insight – April 2004

Persons with Disabilities and  Canada's Electoral Systems Gradually Advancing the Democratic Right to Vote

Persons with Disabilities and Canada's Electoral Systems
Gradually Advancing the Democratic Right to Vote

Michael J. Prince
Acting Dean, Faculty of Human and Social Development, University of Victoria

Over the last 20 years, federal, provincial and territorial governments have come to identify citizenship as a central principle in disability-related policy statements and program agreements.Footnote 1 Governments share a belief that Canadian society, the economy and public policy inadequately realize the principle of citizenship for many people with disabilities. The vision rests on the values of equality, inclusion and independence, as well as on the principles of rights and responsibilities, empowerment and participation. The agreed policy direction is to promote access to generic programs that enhance the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of Canadian society.

The purpose of this article is to examine the political side of citizenship for persons with disabilities. In particular, the focus is on the policies and administration of electoral systems at the federal, provincial and territorial levels as they relate to citizens with disabilities. It is intended to provide a better understanding of the present state of the democratic right to vote in Canada for this group of electors.

A brief profile of disability in Canada

Types of Disabilities (2001)
Types of Disabilities (2001)

Age 15 and over

Source: PALS 2001

The percentages above show the distribution in 2001 of types of disabilities among persons with disabilities aged 15 and over. They do not add to 100, since the majority of persons with disabilities experience more than one type of disability. The information comes from the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS), developed by Statistics Canada.

In 2001, the latest comprehensive survey on disability reported that 12.4% of the population had a disability, representing 3.6 million Canadians.Footnote 2 A person is defined as having a disability if he or she reports a limitation, or a restriction in participating in a standard activity for people in society, which is associated with a physical or mental condition or a health problem. Certainly, voting in federal and provincial or territorial elections is a "normal activity" for adults in Canada.

Survey data show that the rates, severity and types of disabilities vary by age groups. Seniors (aged 65 and over) have a 41% rate of disability, compared to a 10% rate for working-age adults (aged 15 to 64) and a 3% rate for children (aged 14 and under). Thus, we can calculate that about 93% of Canadians with disabilities, or more than 3.3 million, are of voting age.

We also know that most persons with disabilities experience them in mild to moderate forms, rather than severe or very severe forms, as determined by the frequency and intensity of limitations on activity. The most common types of disabilities are related to mobility, agility and pain. This pattern holds nationally and in every province. Among the core working-age population, so-called "invisible disabilities," such as psychological, learning and memory disabilities, are also significant.

The right to vote and access to the electoral system: two contrasting stories

The story of citizenship for Canadians with disabilities differs from conventional accounts in many other liberal democracies.Footnote 3 It is not a simple record of the continual and steady extension of rights and responsibilities over many decades or centuries. For many people with disabilities, guaranteed access to the electoral process did not exist until the last decade or so.

Indeed, we can suggest that there are two contrasting stories about the right to vote, as outlined in the chart below. One story is the dominant narrative of the universal franchise, joined more recently with the emergence of a malaise toward voting. In contrast, the second story, about Canadians with disabilities, presents a very different picture of experiences with voting and expectations of the electoral process.

In the early 1980s, a special House of Commons committee on the disabled and handicapped heard complaints throughout its hearings that the voting systems at the national and provincial levels made it difficult for many Canadians with disabilities to vote on election day. Polling stations were often located too far away and/or were inaccessible. At that time, only one jurisdiction in the country, Manitoba, had made provisions for a postal vote system for general elections. The parliamentary committee argued that the Canada Elections Act should reflect the fundamental principle that elections are conducted for the convenience of all voters, including seniors and people with disabilities, and therefore made recommendations on providing polls at hospitals, nursing homes and apartment buildings.Footnote 4

Two Perspectives on Voting and the Electoral Process
  Electorate in general Electors with disabilities
Model of citizen Able-minded and able-bodied individuals Individuals with limitations and different capacities
Voting in Canada A long-standing political process and traditional form of citizen participation based on a progressively more universal franchise For many citizens with disabilities, a relatively new opportunity and experience in democratic participation
Recent voter turnout Disengagement: A trend to lower voter turnout in many recent elections at the two senior levels of government Engagement: In all likelihood, a trend to higher voter turnout, from a comparatively much lower base
Contemporary context Disenchantment: Declining voter turnout seen as a result of growing public apathy, cynicism about governments, distrust of politicians and a sense of disempowerment in lacking involvement in public policy discussions and formationFootnote 5 Expectation: Growing desire and claims to participate in electoral processes and other political institutions stimulated by disability rights movement and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Reform focus Political party financing rules; enhanced accessibility of voting process; civic education

Beyond the existing electoral process: consideration of alternative electoral systems to single member plurality voting; changes to governmental and legislative institutions
Changes to federal, provincial and territorial election laws, practices and administration: mobile polls, level access to polling stations, mail-in ballots (where they do not yet exist); electronic registration/voting

On the federal government's response to guarantee full political rights to people with physical disabilities, Fraser Valentine and Jill Vickers note: "For people with physical disabilities [that is, mobility and sensory limitations], full access to the franchise was guaranteed only in 1992 when the architectural accessibility of polling stations became mandatory."Footnote 6 While Bill C-114, passed in 1993, finally removed the disqualification to vote for people who are restrained of their liberty of movement or deprived of the management of their property by reason of mental disability, an October 1988 Federal Court of Canada ruling, during that year's general election, had already declared the provision to be invalid because it conflicted with section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As a result, those previously disqualified could vote in the 1988 federal election.

To Canadians with disabilities, voting is not a taken-for-granted political process. The vote is highly significant to them for several reasons. While some citizens with mental disabilities were disqualified, until 1988, from voting in federal elections, many others faced, and may still confront, architectural (in certain jurisdictions) and attitudinal barriers to exercising their right to vote; and, for all, voting in elections represents an important expression of democratic freedom and participation in a political community in which other obstacles and exclusions remain.

Recent reforms to electoral laws and practices

In fact, the process of securing full access to the right to vote is ongoing and unfinished. Various amendments were made to federal electoral law and to administrative practices in 1988, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2000. In brief, major reforms of particular interest to people with disabilities included the following:

  • Special ballots allowing Canadians to vote by mail or in person at the offices of their returning officers (replacing proxy voting)
  • Level access at polling stations and other premises used during an election, combined with transfer certificates to allow voting at a different polling station that has level access, if the elector's own poll is not accessible
  • Mobile polling stations for institutions where persons with disabilities reside
  • Public education and information programs for those with special needs, including the use of alternative formats such as Braille, large print and audio-cassettes
  • Accessibility training and awareness sessions for returning officersFootnote 7

All federal polling stations and offices used by returning officers during an election must have level access. At the 2000 general election, returning officers modified many facilities (including the one pictured above) to provide such access.

At the provincial and territorial levels, too, there has been much progress over the past decade or so. Among the 14 senior governments in Canada (federal, 10 provincial and three territorial), only two, Quebec and New Brunswick, have statutory provisions that disqualify certain persons with disabilities from voting in elections. Two broad types of supports and services are provided to voters with disabilities: (1) alternative methods of voting, such as proxy voting, mobile polls, advance polls with level access, and mail-in or special ballots; and (2) assistance to voters with disabilities on election day, including templates, interpreters and transfer certificates.Footnote 8

With respect to the first type of supports – alternative methods of voting – Ontario and the three territories are the only jurisdictions that provide for proxy voting, that is, appointing some other elector in the electoral district to vote for a person. Where it exists, this method of voting is available to all electors, whether they have a disability or not. Most jurisdictions in Canada have opted for the use of special or mail-in ballots, rather than proxy voting, as an option for electors unable to vote in person in advance or on election day. Accessibility provisions for advance voting are set out in the legislation of all but one jurisdiction (Saskatchewan). The election laws of several provinces specifically mention electors who have an illness, incapacity or disability as a category of electors eligible for these special or mail-in ballots. However, the language of election laws varies, and in certain cases seems to be a vague commitment rather than a firm guarantee.

Mobile polls are legislated as an available feature in seven provinces and two territories, but not in the others. Typically, mobile polls are established in institutional settings (long-term care facilities, health institutions and homes for the aged) and, in some jurisdictions, in sparsely populated and isolated areas. In two provinces, Alberta and Nova Scotia, the election law specifies that a mobile poll be set up only for a facility that houses 10 or more residents who are electors. Inadvertently, this threshold excludes electors in smaller-sized transitional and supportive housing arrangements.

As for the second type of services – assistance to voters with disabilities on election day – a similar patchwork quilt exists across the country. Templates enable electors who are blind or have a visual impairment to mark their ballots in secret, without the assistance of another person. Eight jurisdictions provide for such templates (six make it a statutory requirement), while six other political systems in Canada do not offer this support.

The special ballot, through a unique system of envelopes that protects the secrecy of the vote, allows Canadians to vote by mail or in person at the office of the returning officer. Before voting, the elector must apply for a special ballot voting kit.

Only three jurisdictions address electors who are deaf or mute in their election laws. Quebec's statute affirms that a person capable of interpreting the sign language of a deaf person may assist the deaf elector to communicate with an election officer. Ontario's law states that the elector has the right to the assistance of an interpreter; yet, in the event of inability to secure an interpreter, the elector must, for the time being, be refused a ballot. The federal law provides that a deputy returning officer may appoint and swear in a sign language interpreter to assist the officer in communicating to an elector any information that is necessary to enable him or her to vote.Footnote 9

An elector with a physical disability or incapacity may find it difficult to vote in his or her own polling station if it lacks level or easy access. In such cases, a transfer certificate enables electors with restricted mobility to vote at another polling station, in the same electoral district, with level access. Surprisingly, only four jurisdictions provide for transfer certificates on election day – Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Overall, then, the ability to vote and to have effective and equitable access to the electoral process remains very uneven for Canadians with disabilities.

Accessibility of the Electoral System

Elections Canada has improved many services in recent decades to meet the needs of the electorate, particularly persons with disabilities.

  • There are now three ways to vote: by special ballot, at an advance poll, or on polling day.
  • The special ballot allows Canadians to vote by mail or in person at the office of their returning officer. (See "Voting by Special Ballot")
  • All revisal offices, polling stations and other premises used during an election must have level access.
  • In the rare cases where election day polling stations do not provide level access, transfer certificates are available so that electors with disabilities may use a different polling station that does have level access.
  • The voter information card sent to every registered elector after an election is called indicates whether there is level access to the elector's polling station.
  • Mobile polling stations are provided for institutions where elderly or disabled persons reside.
  • A ballot box is transported from room to room to facilitate voting in hospitals and certain residential institutions.
  • At the advance and election day polls, any person with a visual disability may obtain a cardboard voting template to assist in marking the ballot.
  • Interpreters may accompany voters to assist them at the polls.
  • At the request of the elector, assistance in marking the ballot is available at the advance and election day polls. Voters may also bring a friend or relative who may assist them, after taking an oath.
  • "Permitted personal expenses" for a candidate with a disability or one who cares for a person with a disability include expenses directly related to that disability.

Information services provided by Elections Canada that assist persons with disabilities include:

  • a toll-free enquiries line for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing: TTY 1 800 361-8935
  • information in alternative formats, such as large print, Braille, audio-cassette and diskette
  • plain language publications for persons who have difficulty reading
  • information, e-mail access, and special ballot registration forms available on the Internet (

Conclusions: unfinished work on democratic citizenship

The special ballot, through a unique system of envelopes that protects the secrecy of the vote, allows Canadians to vote by mail or in person at the office of the returning officer. Before voting, the elector must apply for a special ballot voting kit.

In recent years, reforms have been introduced to modernize our electoral systems for citizens with disabilities. Different understandings of disability have informed these reforms – a not surprising situation, given that various understandings of disability exist in Canada and internationally. A human rights perspective, stressing equality and human dignity, has successfully challenged disqualifications to vote based on mental conditions as unfair and discriminatory. Some reforms reflect an environmental notion of disability: they recognize that physical barriers in social practices and institutions, such as voting and polling stations, have prevented persons with disabilities from participating in elections. Many reforms to Canada's electoral systems have adopted a biomedical or functional approach, seeing a restriction in the person's ability to perform the customary activity of obtaining and completing a ballot as requiring accommodation in the form of mobile polls and mail-in ballots.

Yet, citizens with disabilities continue to face obstacles to full electoral participation. The electoral processes in Canada are not as accessible as they could be. To effectively take part as voters, many people with disabilities require not just level access to polling stations, but also access to various supports – such as specialized aids and devices, personal help with everyday activities and handy transportation. They also require information, in plain language and alternative formats, on candidates, the issues of the day and the electoral process.

A groundbreaking amendment in 2001 to the Ontario Election Act added the provision that, within three months after an election, each returning officer is to prepare a report on the measures he or she took to provide access for electors with disabilities. These reports are to be submitted to the Chief Election Officer of Ontario who, in turn, will make them available to the public. Reports from the October 2003 Ontario general election will offer the first round of information under this reporting requirement. The reports will shed light on the experiences of citizens with disabilities with the electoral process, and no doubt identify problems and possible improvements to the policy and administration of elections in that province. This provision is worth careful consideration for adoption by other jurisdictions in the country. Research also could be done on the reasons why citizens with disabilities vote or do not vote, nationally or in particular jurisdictions; on the electoral reform preferences (values, goals and mechanisms) of disability organizations, including alternatives to the current first-past-the-post voting system as a way to increase the representation of persons with disabilities in elected legislatures; on the advantages and drawbacks of Internet registration and Internet voting; and on the relationship between Canadians with disabilities (and their families and advocates) and elected representatives in their role as ombudspersons who should address the concerns and needs of this group of constituencies.


Footnote 1 Major reports include: Equal Citizenship for Canadians with Disabilities: The Will to Act, Report of the Federal Task Force on Disability Issues (Ottawa: House of Commons, 1996); Future Directions to Address Disability Issues for the Government of Canada: Working Together for Full Citizenship (Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada, 1999); Advancing the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities: Government of Canada Report (Ottawa: Human Resources Development Canada, 2002).

Footnote 2 Human Resources Development Canada, Disability in Canada: A 2001 Profile, available at

Footnote 3 A similar point applies to women, Aboriginal people and visible minorities. See William Kaplan, ed., Belonging: The Meaning and Future of Canadian Citizenship (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993); and James J. Rice and Michael J. Prince, Changing Politics of Canadian Social Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

Footnote 4 Canada, House of Commons, Obstacles: Report of the Special Committee on the Disabled and the Handicapped (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1981).

Footnote 5 See Nandini Saxena, Citizens' Dialogue Experience: Follow-up Survey Results (Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks, 2003); Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc, "Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters" [on-line research report], Elections Canada (March 2003), available at under "Electoral Law & Policy."

Footnote 6 Fraser Valentine and Jill Vickers, "Released from the Yoke of Paternalism and 'Charity': Citizenship and the Rights of Canadians with Disabilities," International Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 14 (Fall 1996), p. 173.

Footnote 7 For details on these and other reforms, see, under "General Information," "Backgrounders," "Accessibility of the Electoral System."

Footnote 8 The following discussion and analysis draws on the 2002 Compendium of Election Administration in Canada, by Alain Pelletier and associates, for Elections Canada, available at

Footnote 9 See the Ontario Election Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.6, s. 56; Quebec Election Act, R.S.Q., c. E-3.3, s. 349; and Canada Elections Act, S.C. 2000, c. 9, s. 156.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.