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My Son Can’t Read a Ballot: Should He Vote Anyway?

My Son Can’t Read a Ballot: Should He Vote Anyway?
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My son Charlie is 15, autistic and can read some words but not sentences and not words like “Republican,” “Democrat” or “taxes.” He is a U.S. citizen. When he turns 18, should he vote?

Dispute About Voting Rights In Minnesota

In Minnesota, a dispute is going on about whether individuals with disabilities who are under the care of a guardian should retain the right to vote. According to the Star Tribune, Minnesotans whose affairs are controlled by guardianships do have the legal right to vote, unless a judge takes it away.

The state’s Constitution, though, prevents those under guardianship from voting. Representative Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, has sponsored a bill to tighten rules about voting for those under guardianships; she is the guardian for a sister with disabilities and says that the idea is to prevent her and others with similar conditions from being manipulated.

The bill has stalled, but two groups, the Minnesota Voters Alliance and the Minnesota Freedom Council, have taken up the fight and filed a federal lawsuit in February on behalf of 20,000 people. Kiffmeyer and Ron Kaus of the Minnesota Freedom Council point to an incident at the Crow Wing county office in Brainerd in 2010:

A few days before the election, a local man, Monte Jensen, saw what appeared to be special-needs people casting absentee ballots, apparently with prodding and assistance from their group-home workers. State law allows any voter to request and receive assistance, but it is a crime for helpers to influence voters or mark the ballots if the voter cannot communicate a choice.

Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan said his office and sheriff’s deputies fully investigated the allegations, with help from the FBI. “I made the decision, we couldn’t prove improper voter assistance,” he said.

Erick Kaardal, a lawyer for Kaus and the other plaintiffs, argues that “Some people are so disabled, and they don’t have the mental capacity to vote, and caregivers shouldn’t bring them to the polling place.” To be able to vote, Kaardal says, people should be able to answer questions such as “Do you know who the candidates are?” and “Do you understand a ballot question?”

Individuals with Disabilities, Competence and the Right to Vote

But disability rights advocates counter that “the right to vote, even if exercised infrequently, was an important part of the 1960s and 1970s reforms that moved mentally retarded and mentally ill people out of state hospitals and into community settings.” 61-year-old Dave McMahan is a military veteran who has a mental illness, lives in a group home and is under a legal guardian’s care. As he tells the Star Tribune,

“I want to vote. I’ve been through sweat and blood to vote. I don’t want my rights taken away, because I fought for my rights here in the United States and expect to keep them that way.”

Stephen Grisham of Alternate Decision Makers Inc. of Minneapolis, whose firm oversees the care for about 80 senior citizens and children with disabilities, notes that, while most of his clients do not vote, some (including an 89-year-old woman) certainly want to.

The issue about whether those under the care of a guardian can vote involves question of competency: to what extent can someone with a mental illness (schizophrenia, for instance) or intellectual disabilities like Charlie be able to make the decisions involved in voting?

When Just Getting to the Polling Place is a Challenge

Another issue is that of accessibility.†Grisham’s 89-year-old client asked him to help her obtain a photo ID; another fight about voting rights in Minnesota is over a law — strongly advocated by Kiffmeyer — that voters must have a photo ID. Unfortunately, this can be a challenge and it is not easy to find documents such as a person’s birth certificate (Grisham notes that it took four months to find that of his elderly client).

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112 comments

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10:52PM PDT on Sep 11, 2012

Interesting. since I live in MN and a close friend of mine has a situation like this I will ask her about.

8:15PM PDT on Sep 10, 2012

If a person doesn't UNDERSTAND what the vote is about, or who they are voting for, then they should not vote. If someone couldn't read the material because of a learning disability or visual impairment, but they understand who and what they are voting for, then they should be allowed to vote with an assistant/ reader, etc...

12:00AM PDT on Sep 10, 2012

If you're unable to get to the polling place, then arrangements should be made, same if you're blind or dyslexic. But if you're retarded or senile and don't know what you're doing there, the no, you should not vote.

Muriel C, well said. Just one tiny protest: Most of us aspies do not like the term Aspergers sufferers, as we do not feel we suffer from it, any more than you suffer from being NT. Tony Attwood says it very well here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKRIRZEV4B4

6:24PM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

It's EVERYONES right!!!

2:01PM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

How quickly the conversation would seem to migrate from mental capacity, to literal literacy , and then on to political literacy.

For some reason the phrase "slippery slope" seems to be coming to mind of it's own volition.

It would be imagined that if only those with a full and complete comprehension of the issues were allowed to vote the entire run of ballots could be produced on a single office copier.

Even less ballots would be required depending upon who devised the test.

12:19PM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

and some people just don't have a clue as to what is going on Politically. If you want to vote for someone-- at least know what the platforms are the the issues are.. and then be able to make an intelligent decision based on your own perception without outside influence.. Then anyone should be able to vote.. It's the woman who said last election... "I'm gonna get some free money from Obama's stash" that needs to find a better reason to get to the polls.

9:49AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

Muriel C. - You took the words right out of
my mouth! Couldn't have stated it better.
Thank you!
What is it with these vote denying fraudsters?

8:14AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

This article isn't clear at all. Old age, intellectual deficiency, mental illness, and disability are all lumped together.
Some people can have a slew of disabilities which makes it necessary that they be driven to the polling place and that the ballot be read to them, yet be fully competent; Mental illness doesn't usually negate intelligence; and autism isn't a intellectual deficiency, it's a neurological problem with a very wide range, from Asperger sufferers, who are actually a lot more intelligent that the average "normal" adult, to completely unable to communicate.
Before one is denied the right to vote, incompetence should be proven, not just inferred from disability or mental illness.

6:03AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

Caregivers exploiting vulnerable adults for their vote is unethical.

2:39AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

Difficult question which I believe cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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