have a right to
cast a ballot
October 29, 2008
Editor's note: The following guest column was written by Jim Bloch, customer relations coordinator for Thumb Alliance P.I.H.P., which manages the public mental health and Medicaid substance abuse services for Lapeer, Sanilac and St. Clair County Community Mental Health.
Voting is the cornerstone of democracy and the history of politics in America over the last 100 years is in no small part the history of disenfranchised populations—women in the early part of the 20th century, African Americans in mid-century—struggling to gain the right to vote.
Like those historic movements, people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities have fought battles to expand and protect their voting rights. The most recent national victory came in 2002, with the passage of the Help Americans Vote Act. Among other things, the act mandated that every precinct in the country provide at least one voting machine that is fully accessible to voters with disabilities. The act mandated that everyone must be able to vote secretly and independently. HAVA made federal grants available to the states to implement the act and Michigan in turn granted more than $1 million to cities and townships to help make voting accessible to everyone, including helping with the purchase of AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminals.
A series of other laws guarantee the voting rights of people with mental disabilities, including the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Despite suspicions of foul play in 2000 and 2004 elections, voting is one of the few arenas in which democracy works fairly well.
There is nothing especially democratic about the process of getting nominated and running for a national office. National electoral campaigns boil down to a competition over who will end up doing the bidding for one segment or another of America's upper class—the richest corporations and families in the country. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that $5.3 billion will be spent this year to get candidates elected to federal office—$2.4 billion in the presidential race alone. Big business will kick in 75 percent of that money. Given the $700 billion bailout of the banking industry for its bad home mortgages, it's not surprising to learn that since at least 1990 the largest donors to national campaigns have been financial and real estate corporations. After years of corporate fundraising, months of expensive state primaries and an even more expensive national campaigns, who will the newly elected president and Congress be beholden to? In a crisis, who will get bailed out?
But in the quiet of the voting booth, your ballot and my ballot carry the same weight as each member of the Walton family, the collective owners of Wal-Mart. Five Waltons occupied the top 11 slots on the Forbes magazine list of the richest 400 Americans in 2006, all of them with a net worth of around $15 billion apiece.
At Holland Woods Middle School in Port Huron, Mayfield Township Hall in Lapeer County, the Lions Club on Harsens Island, Sanilac Township Hall in Port Sanilac, and thousands of polling places across the country, it's one person, one vote. In the voting booth, those of us with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are free to vote for the candidates and proposals that we think will lead to better government, better protection for our civil liberties and the furtherance of our interests—just like all citizens.
Still, those of us with mental disabilities face hurdles that other people do not. Some of the hurdles are easily cleared. Under federal law, we can bring someone with us into the voting booth to help us read or understand or cast our ballots—as long as the person isn't our employer or an officer or agent in our union. We can ask a poll worker to help us.
A higher hurdle has been so-called competence standards, eerily like the literacy tests that kept African Americans from voting in the Jim Crow South—and would have kept many more whites from voting if they had been forced to take the tests, too.
"People with mental disabilities sometimes lose the right to vote because of state voter competence laws or because election officials, poll workers or service providers improperly impose their own voter-competence requirements," according to
'Vote: It's Your Right,' a pamphlet by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the National Disability Rights Network.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that technically bar people from voting if they live with a guardian or are mentally incapacitated or incompetent. About 20 states have laws on the books that prohibit people from voting if a court finds them mentally incapacitated. Nine states seem to be stuck in the dark ages, with laws barring
"idiots" and "insane persons" from voting—Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Minnesota, New Jersey and Nevada. Only 11 states, including Michigan, have no restrictions related to mental disability on the books. In Michigan, the Constitution gives the legislature the power to impose competency laws, but the legislature has not done so.
In general, the body of federal voting legislation trumps outmoded state laws that attempt to restrict voting to the so-called "sane." Even in states with competency laws, a court of law must make the call about competence.
Guardianship certainly is not a sufficient basis to bar a person for voting. In general, a person might require some kind of guardianship if he or she is unable to meet the basic demands of living—eating, daily hygiene, dressing, caring for a home. But these kinds of competencies do not necessarily have anything to do with voting. Rather, political competence exists when the individual communicates—with assistance, if necessary— "a specific desire to participate in the voting process," according to the American Bar Association's House of Delegates' definition. Or as the Bazelon Center puts it: "Whether the person can express a choice."
Under federal statutory and case law, people with disabilities must be treated like people without disabilities. No state requires competency tests for general voters.
Sometimes, an election official or poll worker will take it upon themselves to deem a person "incompetent." In the event that your right to vote is challenged, the Help Americans Vote Act gives you the right to demand what is called a "provisional ballot," allowing you to vote on the spot. The legitimacy of your vote will be determined later.
Sometimes, the staffs at long term care facilities - nursing homes, group homes, shelters, state institutions - will decide that their residents should not vote—perhaps because they deem them not competent, perhaps for disciplinary reasons.
If you have experienced a problem registering to vote or if you have a problem at the polls, call the National Disability Rights Network's legal hotline at (866) OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683),
your county clerk or the
Michigan Secretary of State
Terry Lynn Land at
A single vote may not be much of a counterweight against the political clout of the biggest corporations and the richest people in America. But it's all we have. We know that one vote multiplied millions of times can mean the difference between light and darkness.
We know, too, that in 2000, George W. Bush won the White House by 906 votes in Florida. That's about the same number of adults served by Lapeer County Community Mental Health in 2007. That's about one third of the number of adults served by St. Clair County Community Health during the same period.
The message is simple: We all have the right to vote. Let's use it.