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Disability Discrimination May Tarnish Spain’s Electoral Reforms

People with Intellectual Disabilities May Face Arbitrary Scrutiny As They Vote

A man is helped to cast a symbolic vote during an event organized by The Spanish Committee of Representatives of Persons with Disabilities outside the Spanish parliament in Madrid, Friday, June 17, 2016. © 2016 AP Photo/Francisco Seco

People with disabilities may experience discrimination as they vote in Spain’s general election this weekend, despite a law which guarantees equal voting rights. 

Last year, Spain reformed its existing law on the general electoral system to ensure “the right to vote for all persons with disabilities.” It modified previous legislation which allowed a judge to declare some people with disabilities as “incapable” of voting, or of being elected. The reform had immediate positive effects, allowing 100,000 people, mainly those with intellectual disabilities, to vote for the first time in Spain’s April 2019 elections.

But Plena Inclusión, an organization that represents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Spain, has pointed out that a directive issued by the Central Electoral Board after the reform, which allows staff in voting stations to record information on people who, in their opinion, aren’t voting “consciously, freely and voluntarily,” is likely to discriminate against voters with intellectual disabilities.

The directive, after discussing the abolition of prior restrictions on the right of persons with disabilities to vote, provides that in the event an electoral official considers a vote is not freely made, they may make a record of that determination along with the person’s identification number. The directive offers no guidance on how staff should reach their opinion, but clearly is designed to target an unfounded fear that voters with intellectual disabilities, who may be voting for the first time, could fall into this category. The directive doesn’t prevent them from voting, but no other group of voters faces the same risk of needless and arbitrary scrutiny and potential recording of their information.

The Spanish Ombudsman also raised concerns about this, and has recommended that the Central Electoral Board revise its directive and remove the authority of election staff to make “subjective assessments” about people’s supposed fitness to vote.

The Central Electoral Board should heed this call, and suspend this damaging directive that only serves to foster stereotypes and prejudice. People with learning or intellectual disabilities deserve support to fully exercise their right to vote, in line with the spirit of last year’s electoral reform and United Nations disability rights treaty.

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