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).
There are currently least 36 million people with disabilities (more than 11 percent of the population) in the U.S. One-third of adults of working age (21-64 years old) are unemployed and 27 percent of working age adults with disabilities live below the poverty line, as Rebecca Schleifer, health and human rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, writes in the Huffington Post. It costs $15-$25 to get your birth certificate, fees that are more challenging for those more likely to live in poverty.
Schleifer cites a 2012 study showing that voter turnout for individuals with disabilities is 11 percent lower than for people without. For those with physical disabilities, simply getting to a polling place (due to not being able to drive and having to rely on others or public transportation) and getting into a polling place can be barriers. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that voting places must be accessible but a 2009 US Government Accountability Office study found that more than two-thirds were not fully accessible.
Should Charlie Vote When He’s Older?
Some states bar individuals with mental illness or intellectual disabilities like Charlie from voting based on their being “mentally incompetent.” But sometimes election officials or service providers have “improperly” screened out those they deemed incompetent, says Schleifer:
In Virginia, for example, election officials refused to provide absentee ballots for people in state psychiatric facilities because they read the state law to authorize such ballots only for people with physical disabilities. A 2008 study of Philadelphia nursing homes found that staff were denying residents the right to vote based on their own assessment of capacity to vote, notwithstanding that Pennsylvania law does not require that voters be deemed competent to cast a ballot.
My husband and I will be taking the legal steps required to place Charlie under our guardianship by the time he turns 18. But, while it’s likely Charlie will not be able to read a ballot — he tests low when his IQ is evaluated — he is far more intelligent and understands more than is apparent. He will rely on state and federal support including Medicaid as an adult and, to the extent that we can, I think it’s important to explain that something he does (voting) could affect his own life (the services and benefits he receives).
An organization called The ARC – “Association for Retarded Citizens” — often comes under fire because of the use of the word “retarded” in its name. The “r-word” is shunned now, but saying that someone like Charlie is mentally retarded was once considered progress; it certainly is over words like “feeble-minded” and “idiot.”
Concerns about causes, treatments and scientific research, while certainly important, are at the center of many organizations for those with disabilities. I think it’s significant that the word “citizens” is in the ARC’s name: Charlie is a citizen, with rights that need to be acknowledged. Rather than simply take away the right of those under guardianship to vote, should we not seek to figure out better how to protect that right?
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