Doctors have diagnosed her with mild mental retardation and epilepsy, and she is under limited guardianship, meaning that her mother manages her health and financial decisions. The decision about whether to vote, however, is hers alone — a reality that might be different if she lived in another state. (via Keeping the ‘Mentally Incompetent’ From Voting - Kimberly Leonard - The Atlantic)
- About 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws in their constitutions that can limit people with mental disabilities from voting if they have been ruled “mentally incapacitated,” or incompetent, by a court. This means they have been determined unable to manage their own affairs or make specific life decisions, which, other than voting for candidates, can include managing their money, entering a contract, making medical decisions or caring for their children.
- People with mental disabilities or patients who are receiving psychiatric treatment do not automatically lose their eligibility to vote in any state. Court-ordered voting restrictions, however, can apply to people judged mentally incompetent due to a range of mental disabilities, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Down syndrome, or autism.
- When filling out a registration form in some states, people must answer whether they have ever been ruled mentally incapacitated. If so, and if their capacity has not been restored, then that person is ineligible to vote.
- The limits vary from state to state, and it is unclear to what degree they are enforced. Some states do not allow anyone who has been judged mentally incompetent by a court to vote, while other states require that judges specifically revoke voting rights for the limits to apply.
- Mark Salzer, a Temple University professor and chairman of the school’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, said voting rights for people with mental health disabilities haven’t been at the forefront of recent, widespread debate because people tend to think the laws are correct. ”They think that if you have a mental illness — and they use the term broadly — then your rationality is impaired and you shouldn’t be able to vote,” he said.
- Salzer and members of human rights groups say these voting laws are outdated, and that their mere existence in state constitutions propagates stigmas about people with mental disabilities.
- It is difficult to assess how many people these laws affect. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that one in 17 people lives with a serious mental illness, but exact numbers regarding people who are ruled mentally incompetent by a court is not available. More people are added to the rolls every day, and in many cases people can regain lost competency. Angela Kimball, NAMI’s director of state policy, says the laws make people feel as if they don’t deserve something or aren’t entitled to it. “The idea of limiting the vote only to those who meet a certain set of criteria is a little scary,” she said. Salzer from Temple agrees. “It’s just plain wrong,” he said. “It too easily disenfranchises voters. It takes away people’s citizenship rights. They label people and perpetuate stigma and discrimination.”