Federal election 2016 – is your vote accessible yet?

In September 2013 I wrote an article in this column entitled ‘How inaccessible websites could affect your vote’. At the time I was looking at whether or not people with disabilities were at risk of casting a vote that was not reflective of their political views due to an inaccessible website, and it turned out that it was indeed a possibility. With an election in Australia just weeks away, I thought it would be a good time to review this topic and see if there have been any improvements to the way in which people with disabilities can consider all viewpoints and make an informed choice on the day.

While I always love election day, it’ll be a bit different for me this year – instead of going to the local primary school, running the gauntlet of ‘how to vote’ cards and casting my ballot, I’ll actually be overseas and will need to vote early. As this will restrict my access to information on the day, it’s even more important for me this year that I’ll be able to review all the information on the policies of the parties and determine the best choice that represents my views.

When I wrote my first article not the subject in 2013 I was concerned that people with disabilities weren’t getting the information they needed, and could potentially cast a vote that was different to their choice. The main concerns I had were the inability to confirm your enrolment, the WCAG 2.0 compliance level of the major political sites, and the ABC Vote Compass website which asked a series of questions to determine which party best represented your views. After I completed the analysis, it became clear there was cause for concern: The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website was very inaccessible, making it hard to confirm the enrolment; the political party websites were terrible for the most part; and the ABC Vote Compass website had some accessibility issues with the sidebars, meaning that it was indeed possible for people to make mistakes and potentially cast a vote different to their intent at the ballot box.

Checking your enrolment

So, where do things stand now?  The first part of the voting experience is to confirm that you are enrolled, so for this I again visited the AEC website and again found it a very difficult experience due to accessibility issues. While missing alternative text from linked images, missing title attributes and a broken skip link were challenging in itself, the CAPTCHA that was present last time is still there, making it almost impossible for people across a range of disabilities to confirm their enrolment. 

With significant improvements to web technologies and security mechanisms in the past three years, there are plenty of ways to address these issues. 

Political party websites

So, assuming you somehow managed to confirm you were enrolled, the attention turns to viewing the various policies of the major political parties. For this election I had a look at the four major party websites, the Liberal Party of Australia, the Australian Labour Party (ALP), the Nationals and The Greens.  There were three things I particularly focused on in terms of accessibility:

  • Broad accessibility issues that might affect my ability to find and read the policies
  • Video accessibility
  • Contacting the party

First up I had a look at the Liberal Party website.

Screen-shot of the Liberal Party website homepage

While the website is quite different to how it appeared in 2013, especially with the notable lack of Tony Abbot images, unfortunately there are still a lot of accessibility issues. These include missing alternative text from images and linked images, no title attribute, duplicate IDs, opening links in new windows, colour contrast issues and general mark-up errors.

With regard to contact information, it took a fair effort to find it but I eventually located a link in the footer revealing a fairly accessible list of contacts. A random selection of videos on their YouTube channel happily revealed the presence of closed captions – and quite good quality captions too.

To keep the coalition together, the next website I looked at was the Nationals.

Screen-shot of The Nationals website homepage

While many of the Nationals’ policies are shared with the Liberal party, it appears sadly that they also share a common theme when it comes to accessibility issues.  The website contains a similar list of missing alternative text for images and linked images, no title attribute, duplicate IDs, colour contrast issues and general mark-up errors In addition, there are also object tags without alternative text and link purpose issues.

With regard to the contact information, it was one of the easier contact pages to get to, although the busy nature of the page may have made it difficult for people to actually find the relevant information. Videos were captioned although the quality was poor in places.

Next up is the main challenger, the ALP.

Screen-shot of the ALP website homepage

While there may be substantial differences in policy between the ALP and the Coalition, there wasn’t much difference in accessibility issues.  Missing alternative text on images and linked images, no title attribute, duplicate IDs, empty headings, form control issues and colour contrast represent a familiar list of accessibility issues with the website, making it very difficult to navigate.

The contact page is a little easier to find, although sometimes this is in the form of a splash screen modal window asking for your details which can be a little confusing.  The videos on the ALP’s YouTube channel appear to be captioned from a sample selection with reasonably good caption quality.

The last political party website is The Greens:

Screen-shot of the Greens party website homepage

While The Greens website was surprisingly effective with a screen readar and did not have many issues in itself, its crazy colours and overwhelming visual presentation make it a challenge to use visually. There are still some issues relating to language declaration but it’s really the ‘death by carousel’ that’s the main issue here. In fairness though it would certainly win the ‘most improved award’ for accessibility since the last election as the 2013 version was virtually unusable.

Assuming you can get to the contacts page the process is reasonably straightforward, and the videos appear to be captioned although the quality could be improved.

So essentially the political party websites haven’t changed much apart from The Greens website which has improved for screen reader users. However, it is refreshing to see that in the sample selection of videos the availability of captions has improved substantially.

ABC Vote Compass – a significant improvement

Shortly after my last article I received an email from Patrick Dunphy from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) following up on some of the issues with Vote Compass, as CBC created it and licensed it to the ABC. I was really excited about the opportunity to provide feedback as Vote Compass is a great tool, and I was interested to see if there were any improvements the next time we had a federal election. 

The good news story of this election campaign is that the commitment from CBC to improve Vote Compass has very much been reflected in the use of it by the ABC in this year’s election.

Screen-shot of the Vote Compass website

This time around the sidebars that went invisible in high contrast screens are no longer used, instead using either mouse clicks or keyboard characters to answer questions. This sped up the process considerably and the final results were quite accessible using a variety of different assistive technology products. It’s a great step forward and in many ways addresses the key concern of the last election in that if people use a tool such as Vote Compass to determine which party their views align with, it’s likely now that the result will be accurate should they want to carry that result through to the ballot box.

Conclusion – it’s improved, but the AEC and political parties need to do better

Overall it’s been encouraging to see that in the past three years, there have been some really substantial improvements in accessibility, most notably the efforts made by the CBC in improving the accessibility of Vote Compass. With the ABC tool being largely fixed in term of accessibility and all video content tested containing captions, it’s now likely that people with disabilities can access enough material about the policies of various parties to make an informed decision.

However, there are still fundamental issues. Most notably, the AEC’s website is still largely inaccessible and these issues should be fixed as a matter of urgency. All the political party websites have a significant number of accessibility issues, with only The Greens appearing to have made any effort to consider accessibility. On the bright side, it’s refreshing to see that, while not all videos where tested, the ones which were selected at random from each party were captioned. 

So, while people with disabilities still can’t easily confirm if they are enrolled to vote or view the policies of major parties, they can watch videos and use a popular tool to independently assess their viewpoint. While there has been progress, it’s my hope that by the time we swing around to Federal Election 2019, the most significant change in policy by all the parties will be to make their websites accessible.