States all over the country are grappling with the issue of who is mentally fit to vote. Nursing home residents, especially those with Alzheimer’s, are coming into question, as well as people living with other disabilities. The mentally disabled and their advocates are fighting to secure voting rights while psychiatrists and those that work with the elderly are concerned about the risks of voting by people with conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Many people with dementia vote or want to vote but it is important to ensure that they are not pressured to vote certain ways. A New Jersey nursing home employee won a county election but was forced to step down after it was revealed that she took advantage of mentally incapacitated residents. Similar accusations have been reported in Alabama, South Carolina and other states. This summer, lawyers led by the American Bar Association and a group of psychiatrists will publish recommendations for national standards suggesting that people should only be banned from voting if they cannot indicate a “specific desire to participate in the voting process.”
New Jersey’s constitution currently forbids an “idiot or insane person” from voting and an amendment may appear on the November ballot. Advocates want the words removed, but fear they will be replaced with vague and restrictive language. A current Missouri lawsuit seeks to overturn the current state voting ban for people under full guardianship because of mental illness. A current debate in Rhode Island concerns the voting rights of the criminally insane. Only two states allows jailed felons to vote but advocates argue that the criminally insane are evaluated based on dangerousness and not voting capacity, and that voting can be part of rehabilitation moving them “closer to society.” State laws are inconsistent, but the emerging model is based on the 2001 ruling in Maine which allows people to vote if they understand the voting process and can make the choice. Assessing such qualifications is still controversial.
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