By Joyce Lee
In 39 states and Washington, D.C., laws can strip the right to vote for people with mental disabilities, a Seattle Times article reported. But problematically, these laws are indiscriminately applied to those with Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, schizophrenia, and more, which makes for a confusing legal landscape where people who might not yet have lost the capacity to choose their preferred candidates are restricted from voting for them.
According to the Spectrum Institute, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, tens of thousands every year lose the right to vote through guardianship proceedings. If they are judged “incapacitated” or “incompetent,” judges may take away voting rights in several states. The only states that don’t have similar laws are Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.
Such laws have been put in place out of fear of voter fraud, where guardians, caregivers, family members, and others may take advantage of people with disabilities. However, there is little uniformity among these laws nor is there consensus among legal, psychological, and medical professionals about them. For example, many states lack a clear legal definition for what “mental incapacitation” means, and so it is often up to the judge to make that determination.
Some states, including Washington state, are making these laws stricter, asking: does the person understand the “nature and effect” of voting? Researchers from Columbia University created that standard. Their studies show that those with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease are at greatest risk of lacking capacity to vote, while those with mild Alzheimer’s disease and nearly all people with serious mental disability retain this capacity.
Under these stricter standards, a vague explanation about a candidate like “I just think he’s good” is not adequate. But, as Penn Memory Center Co-Director Dr. Jason Karlawish pointed out to the Seattle Times, Americans often vote for vague reasons like liking someone’s hair or thinking the candidate would be nice to have a beer with. People with disabilities shouldn’t have a tougher standard, he said.
The AARP estimates 1.5 million adults are under legal guardianship nationwide, but there’s not enough data to show how many are restricted in voting rights. And at the state level, it doesn’t look like these restrictions are being removed anytime soon.
For the full article in The Seattle Times, please click here.