How inaccessible websites could affect your vote

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Tuesday, 1 October 2013 11:58am

In the wake of Australia's Federal election, Dr Scott Hollier looks at how voters with disability were disadvantaged by the websites and systems on offer.

Here in Australia we’ve recently had a Federal election and I must admit, I really enjoy them, especially polling day. As voting is mandatory, it’s a big community event and I find it exciting to go to the local polling place to vote and enjoy a sausage sizzle cooked up by local kids, using the opportunity to raise some money for their primary school. 

Yet for many people with disabilities, the process isn’t so straightforward. For example, the ‘how to vote’ cards really aren’t that helpful to me as I can’t read the print, so I generally retreat to the web to find relevant information about candidates and parties to prepare myself before I get there. But what happens when the websites I need to make an informed decision aren’t accessible or do not comply with WCAG 2.0? Are people with disabilities missing out on their right to make an informed decision due to web accessibility issues?

Access to information and in particular, party websites during election time helps many Australians make informed decisions about who to vote for. Accessible information on websites is particularly essential because it means research can be done independently, using assistive tools and accessibility features on personal computers and devices. After reading a number of complaints online and having my own personal struggles I thought this was an issue worth exploring.

To be fair, the bombardment of advertising across all media meant it was likely that at some point, all Australian voters were exposed to the key messages of the major political parties. But as highlighted by a number of fact-checking websites such as Politifact Australia, many of the claims made by the major political parties were either selective in their use of statistics or interpreted facts in a way that benefitted their campaign. This meant that to make an informed decision, it was necessary to do a bit of digging online.

It was during the Kill CAPTCHA campaign run by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) that I first noticed discussion about accessibility issues relating to election websites. One blind person indicated that it was almost impossible to do a basic check on whether or not their enrolment was correct on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website. A basic review shows that there are indeed issues with missing alternative text, problems with menus disappearing when customised colour schemes are used and the biggest challenge of all, trying to overcome the CAPTCHA required to compete the ‘Check for Enrolment’ section. I have to admit, it’s a bit discouraging when accessibility issues prevent you from even verifying you can vote.

So assuming you managed to fight the accessibility issues long enough to confirm you are enrolled, the process moves on to making a decision. In the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility course that I co-teach, the students were also making comments regarding the accessibility of the websites of the political parties, both major and minor. It prompted me to have a look at each of the major parties to see how hard it would be for someone to read the policy documents on the respective websites and get more information. 

Starting with the victors, in my view, the website of the Liberal Party of Australia needs a lot of work. There were image and alternative text issues, missing title attributes and poorly labelled forms just to mention a few. Their coalition partner The Nationals seemed to be in partnership on web accessibility issues too as their list of issues were remarkably similar to those of the Liberal party, with a few extra mark-up errors for good measure. The Australian Labor Party may not have won the election but it wins my vote for the most difficult to access website of a major Australian political party. There were numerous errors regarding labelling, forms, alternative text, navigation, contrast and incompatibility with assistive technologies. The Australian Greens didn’t fare much better with a very busy website and a host of alternative text, labelling and form issues. A random check of videos from the major parties suggests that sadly, captioning wasn’t high on their respective list of priorities either. In light of the rise of the micro parties in the Senate this election, I also had a look at the Palmer United website, which looks like it was thrown together pretty quickly and has a number of issues, including a CAPTCHA for requesting more information. Perhaps Clive Palmer would prefer you requested information on his party in person on board his Titanic replica or dinosaur park?

While the reviews were conducted more as a brief assessment than an in-depth website audit, it shows that web accessibility, has not been taken seriously by any major Australian political party. Given the vast amounts of money spent on advertising by the parties to get our attention, it seems counterintuitive not to build their websites in a way that can be easily accessed by everyone. If anyone from an Australian political party is reading this, please consider saving a fraction of your advertising budget in the next election to building a simple, effective and accessible website for your party so that people with disabilities have a fighting chance of finding out more about where you stand.

As much as the websites of the political parties have been disappointing in their lack of access, there has been one particular resource for election information that has raised deeper concerns among people with disabilities and that is the accessibility of the ABC’s Vote Compass. The website was promoted as an educational tool developed by a non-profit group of political scientists, allowing people to answer a short series of questions to discover how you fit in the Australian political landscape.  The tool was heavily promoted by the ABC during the election campaign receiving 1.2 million requests and the general consensus seemed to be that the results provided at the end were pretty accurate in explaining which political party was most likely to represent your views.

However, while Vote Compass was a runaway success for the ABC and used frequently during the campaign in its TV, radio and online bulletins, there were many parts of Vote Compass that were inaccessible. The earlier survey questions were generally okay, however accessibility issues began to creep in when a sliding scale was used; final graphs showing the political parties and results were discussed in detail on various blind and vision impaired forums as being virtually impossible to comprehend.

While the ABC generally works hard to make its content accessible, and should be commended for its work in providing captioned content on its iView catch-up TV service and general website accessibility, the accessibility issues for Vote Compass are serious and arguably more so than the political party websites. With the purpose of helping people decide which party to vote for, there is a real danger that accessibility issues could lead to incorrect selections. I understand that in producing such a ground-breaking initiative there would have been a lot of work to do before the election campaign commenced, but with a tool such as this potentially carrying such great weight in determining a person’s vote, it’s important that the greatest care is taken to ensure that everyone who has the opportunity to accurately complete the Vote Compass survey gets the right result at the end. It is my hope that between now and the next election, the ABC will continue to make accessibility improvements to its services and ensure that Vote Compass and other initiatives become WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliant in the future.

As the dust of the election settles, can we look back on Election 2013 and say with any certainty that people with disabilities missed out on the opportunity to accurately vote due to accessibility issues? It’s difficult to tell. While there were some helpful initiatives in supporting people with disabilities such as the AEC’s telephone voting system for people who are blind, information on the web and tools such as the ABC’s Voting Compass still presented many accessibility barriers for people with disabilities. What makes information on the web and its accessibility important is that it allows people to discretely and independently research their options and determine their own views. It’s my hope that when Election 2017 swings around that such a fundamental democratic right is both supported and respected by all involved in the election process.

This article was originally published on our sister site Access iQ, an initiative which helps web professionals deliver accessible content.

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