A distant ballot box and the invisible votes from a wheelchair

April 14, 2016 | 05:01 pm PT
Tran Quoc Nam
I am disabled and sometimes I have to put up with discrimination. It has become a hobby of mine to see how other people similar to me engage in big national events, such as the upcoming elections.

I met Thach, a disabled person living in Tay Nguyen. His daily routine involves traveling around singing with his friend, H “wheelchair”. Thach is 37 years old and has lived in Dak Kia village, KonTum province since he was a child. Of course he has a resident ID card, but he has never received a voter registration card.

I asked whether Thach wanted to vote, and he quickly responded: "Yes! So they see that I’m just as equal as everyone else.” 

Why don’t you tell them you want to vote then? I asked.  “There is no one talking or explaining things to a cripple like me, how am I supposed to know I have the right to vote?” Thach told me.

H “wheelchair” is another story. “When I went to vote for the first time, it was exciting. I struggled to get inside the polling station in my wheelchair. Way back then I didn’t go to school so I couldn’t read. I had to ask a staff member there and they looked at me as if I was an alien. The ballot box was placed quite high up in the booth to look more formal and I couldn’t reach it. Since then, to save myself all the hassle, I just ask my mum to take by ballot card to the booth and let the polling officers write it down for me.”

I heard the story and thought that maybe only handicapped people in mountainous areas have these kinds of problem; probably it’s different for others living around the cities. Then I went to see Quy, a blind person who lives in the center of Hanoi. Quy comes from a wealthy family and received proper care, so even though he is blind, he is well-educated. Excitedly, he told me his story: “Each election is an unforgettable memory for me. When I was 18 and got my first voter registration card, I groped my way to the voting station where a girl eagerly guided me in. She asked why I didn’t have someone to vote on behalf instead of coming all the way here. Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable.”

I heard that the elected deputy in Quy’s constituency had a good reputation among the locals there. On the day when he came to talk to voters, Quy wanted to ask him a few questions, but the meeting was held on the second floor. Blinded and unable to help it with the legs, he had to give up. That year, when Quy went to vote, another girl saw him struggling at the voting booth. She asked: “Do you want me to help?” He didn't refuse the offer, but was unsure of her intentions.

It's not the first time Quy has had to ask someone to write down the vote on his behalf, and there are 1.2 million blind voters in our country who have cast votes they didn’t write down themselves without knowing that these votes have been written correctly.

This is actually illegal since Article 60 in the Law on Elections states that when a voter writes his/her vote, no one is allowed to see it. But how can a blind person have control over that? 1.2 million voters may have cast votes that were deemed invalid, and there no-one has ever thought of a solution to the problem.

Elections for the National Assembly and People’s Committees are approaching and I keep thinking about Thach, H “wheelchair” and Quy. The attitude towards the handicapped perhaps also reflects society's general attitude towards the most important right of the people – the right to vote.

This attitude must be very positive since the voter turnout reached up to 99 percent, according to public announcements, and voters were “exhilarated and excited” (said Hanoi’s Election Committee five years ago). But in reality, how many of those votes were made not by the voters themselves, and how many received support? I don’t know.

People with disabilities have physical or mental impairments. But there are many people in remote areas that have an "awareness" impairment. They may not understand their rights or how they should go about voting. If the attitude of “if you can’t do it then let someone else do it” remains, as in the cases of H “wheelchair” and Quy, then the ballot box will forever be out of reach and their votes will remain invisible.

As a disabled person, I keep wishing for ballot boxes to help people in wheelchairs like me; polling staff who are trained to support handicapped people; and on a larger scale, I hope for more publicity and further support on this issue so that every voter can perform their legal right to vote without resorting to asking someone else do it for them.

But that may be my wishful thinking. As long as the voter turnout is reported at near 100 percent and people still seem to be “exhilarated”, perhaps nothing will need to be changed.

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