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).
Photo by brooklyntheborough
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