Keeping the 'Mentally Incompetent' From Voting

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Proponents of laws limiting voting rights say they protect from fraud, but human rights advocates believe they're outdated and stigmatizing.

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Roberta Blomster, 37, lives in a suburb with her parents and sister outside of St. Paul, MN, where she interns with Congressman Keith Ellison's campaign and testifies at her state capital on behalf of people with disabilities. During her free time she knits and spends time with her family and their two dogs.

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. She gets her news from the local paper, television and social media. "It feels wonderful knowing that I'm able to make informed decisions about who I'm voting for," she says. "It's a very satisfying feeling knowing that you're making a difference."

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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.

It could include someone sent to a mental hospital after being found "not guilty" of murder by reason of insanity, a patient with a traumatic brain injury, or an elderly person with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

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.

Proponents of these voting limits say they are in place to protect people from voter fraud. Reagan George, president of Virginia Voter's Alliance, a group that monitors voting in the commonwealth, says he has seen people taking advantage of the votes of people with mental disabilities.

"It's a way of harvesting votes that I don't think is correct," he said.

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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.

The narrative surrounding these laws has been little to non-existent during the 2012 election season, a time when discussion about voting has centered on tightening regulations rather than loosening them. Voter I.D. laws, which require people to present valid identification before casting their ballots, have drawn the most controversy by civil rights groups who say they disenfranchise minority populations.

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.

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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.

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Kimberly Leonard is a health and multimedia reporter based in Washington, D.C. She has written for The Washington PostNewsweek/The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and Kaiser Health News. More

Leonard's multimedia project on the dangers of oil refineries, published by Center for Public Integrity and ABC News, won the 2011 Thomas L. Stokes Award for Best Energy Writing from the National Press Foundation. 

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