Lawyers have said that a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the accessibility of polling places could trigger legislative changes all over the continent.
The court ruled today (26 October) that Slovenia had discriminated against two wheelchair users with muscular dystrophy in a 2015 referendum on gay marriage, because the country’s courts had not allowed them to request accessible polling places ahead of the vote.
The ECHR stopped short, however, of saying that polling places in Europe should be fully accessible in the future.
The case was initiated by Franc Toplak – who died in 2019 after filing the application with the ECHR – and Iztok Mrak, both from Slovenia.
Before the 2015 referendum in Slovenia, both Toplak and Mrak asked Slovenian authorities to adjust polling places near their homes, to enable them to enter polling stations and vote.
Authorities and Slovenian courts rejected their requests, noting that voters were not allowed to complain before the election day. The ECHR ruled that denying them the right to ask for adjustments violated their rights.
Mrak eventually entered the building using a ramp at the back-door entrance used for rubbish collection.
Jurij Toplak (law professor at the Alma Mater Europaea university in Slovenia), who represented the applicants, said that about half of polling places in Europe were not accessible for wheelchairs, or lacked equipment for blind voters to cast a secret ballot.
He pointed out that the judgment was binding on 47 European countries, and predicted that it would lead to changes in the law to allow those with disabilities to request adjustments to polling places.
But another lawyer who worked on the case, Slavko Vesenjak, described the judgment as “a blow” to equality, as it accepted that people with disabilities could be sent to the back entrances of buildings to gain access.
The lawyers are considering an appeal on this point.
This case was the first in which the ECHR extended its jurisdiction to referendums, having previously only dealt with legislative elections.
NUI Galway was one of several organisations that submitted opinions to the Strasbourg court during the proceedings.