European court case has the power to reshape disability access to polling places all over a continent
WASHINGTON – Slovenia is in the middle of an European Court of Human Rights case that could redefine the spirit of equality and define issues of accessibility for persons with disabilities throughout nearly the entire European continent.
Two Slovenian persons with disabilities—Franc Toplak and Iztok Mrak, suffering from muscular dystrophy—filed separate legal motions with the Slovenian government to ensure fair access to polling places for a 2015 national referendum on same-sex marriage. In the summary for their eventual case with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), it was noted that, prior to the referendum, they had filed these complaints to make sure they would have fair access to voting rights. Their complaint was dismissed but they appealed. After the referendum had come and gone, the Supreme Court of Slovenia dismissed their appeal on procedural grounds.
Mrak’s frustration had been building for years, after more than a decade of failed attempts to make his polling place more accessible. As Mrak noted:
“I am deeply disappointed. The authorities have disappointed me by their inactivity when they did not make polling places in the 2019 European Parliament elections accessible even though the Constitutional Court of Slovenia had ruled in 2014 that polling places needed to be accessible. And our legislation says that all polling places need to be accessible, too, but they are not. I either have to vote outside in the street—but when I am in the street, I have no way to call the poll workers who are inside the school—or to climb a ramp that is extremely steep and dangerous. With each new vote, I am being discriminated against and my human dignity is being violated.”
They complained to the European Court of Human Rights, having not succeeded earlier in appealing to the Slovenian government, that, under the same provisions cited for the 2015 referendum, lack of proper steps were taken to ensure they could vote freely and privately in the 2019 European Parliament elections and that there is no venue available to them for remeding their disadvantage.
Assisting with their search for justice is the nephew of Toplak: Jurij Toplak, head of the Alma Mater Europaea’s Human Rights Center, an organization helping, along with Slovenian lawyer Slavko Vesenjak, to represent the two men with disabilities. Besides heading the Center, Jurij is a legal scholar who has been teaching a Visiting Professor at Fordham Law School in New York since 2019. He is a passionate crusader for persons with disabilities in his native Slovenia and beyond. He initiated procedures aiming at improving accessibility of voting and buildings in Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and more.
The ECHR case could potentially result in a ruling mandating an overhaul of polling-place access throughout the whole Europe.
And that would be exactly part of Jurij Toplak’s plan. “Over a decade ago,” notes Jurij, “we started by talking to the management bodies of most European democracies. We informed them about the UN Convention requirements, international standards, and best practices. Some implemented them, and others just ignored. Then we focused on strategic litigation to fight discrimination on national and European-wide levels.” A ruling from the ECHR mandating greater accessibility would embody everything that he has worked towards, then, as he also noted that “Our goal is to make every polling place in Europe accessible in five years. To achieve this, the European Court’s judgment is decisive.”
Specifically, this case could represent a giant leap forward for the rights of the disabled all throughout Europe. What started as indifference from the Slovenian government and its officials has now turned into a moment of truth for the rights of the disabled across a whole continent.
As Toplak notes, “This case is significant because the ECHR will set minimal accessibility standards on a European level. In the 47 European democracies, voters with disabilities are discriminated to very different degrees. In some countries, polling places and ballot papers are entirely inaccessible. In others, they are accessible. Most countries are somewhere in between. In none of the 47 countries are elections are accessible to the level that they are in the United States or to the level required by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
Throughout Europe, there are a number of complicated barriers in different countries that makes it harder or even impossible for some people with disabilities to exercise their fundamental right to vote. According to the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), there are some 800,000 people in 16 European nations that are deprived of their voting rights because of their disabilities. The EESC identified the need for more formal legislation to address this shortfall, especially since standards for accessibility in Europe are not uniform.
Franc Toplak died last year and his daughters are taking the court case forward in his honour. Mrak and Toplaks are now carrying the hopes of people like them all over Europe and beyond on their shoulders. Because of this, they turned down the option of a settlement that could have meant they would be paid a sum of money, instead choosing to fight for the greater good. Indeed, Mrak hopes “that the European Court’s judgment will bring justice and discrimination-free elections not just for me but for every voter with disabilities in Europe.”
Brian E. Frydenborg is a writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area specializing in politics, policy, history, and international affairs. You can follow him on Twitter (@bfry1981) or at his new website, Real Context News (https://realcontextnews.com).