California to Examine Voting Rights of People with Intellectual Disabilities

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The right to vote for Californians with intellectual disabilities is about to get more protection as a federal investigation and new state legislation combine to examine how the state handles the franchise for people who require conservatorships. The LA Times has more in the story of Stephen Lopate:

Stephen Lopate was just a boy when he first mentioned he wanted to vote someday in a presidential election …

Years later, when he turned 18, Lopate’s mother sought a court guardianship of her severely autistic son so that she could oversee his medical affairs and other legal matters.

But she and Lopate were horrified and confused when they discovered that the move would result in her son being stripped of his right to vote.

“I have always made sure … that he knows his opinion matters,” said Lopate’s mother, Teresa Thompson. “It was just awful.”

Thompson complained to a local disability rights group in Los Angeles, setting off a chain of events that led this week to federal authorities announcing they are investigating allegations that California has systematically and illegally denied intellectually disabled residents such as Lopate the right to vote.

The issue was how the courts were interpreting the interaction between a request for conservatorship and the concept of capacity to vote:

Before Lopate’s 18th birthday, his mother began the process of applying for a limited conservatorship over her son. Lopate is endlessly curious and observant, but has trouble talking and can sometimes become overwhelmed, his mother said.

Thompson attended a self-help clinic and was asked whether Lopate was able to fill out a voter registration form on his own. She answered no, because he needs help with anything that involves communicating.

That, she found out, meant she was essentially signing away her son’s right to vote. A court-appointed attorney assigned to assist Lopate told a judge that Lopate should not be given the ability to vote.

“His attorney told me that it would be inconsistent with the concept of conservatorship for Stephen to have the right to vote,” Thompson said. “I was very upset.”

She complained to a disability rights advocacy group, which set off a chain of events culminating in a federal investigation:

A lawyer with [the advocacy] group conducted a review of 61 conservatorship cases involving adults with developmental disabilities in L.A. County and found that nearly 90% of the people had been disqualified from voting, according to the group’s complaint.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court said court officials have not yet received a copy of the complaint and would respond to the Department of Justice once they do.

Investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice in Sacramento have requested records from the state, including those that would show the number of people disqualified from voting in each county and an explanation of policies for disqualifying people under limited conservatorship from voting.

Lopate’s experience has also spurred the Legislature into action, according to the Associated Press:

SB589 would make it clear that those who are under a court guardianship because of disabilities are presumed to be mentally competent to vote unless a judge specifically finds that they are incapable of voting even with reasonable accommodations.

The measure by Sen. Marty Block, a Democrat from San Diego, was approved days after the U.S. Department of Justice announced it is investigating whether California is denying voting rights to those under conservatorships …

The measure passed the Senate, 27-10, on Friday, and now goes to the Assembly.

While it would appear that most of this activity is happening outside the realm (and control) of election officials, it does highlight the importance of acknowledging the needs of people with intellectual disabilities. As our understanding of intellectual disabilities improves – and the awareness of the numbers of people affected by them increases – it’s increasingly clear that the concept of capacity is far more nuanced than previously enforced.

Just as election offices work to make voting accessible to voters with language needs or physical disabilities, a better understanding of intellectual disabilities will allow offices to design forms, procedures and other tools to ensure that voters with the capacity to cast a ballot are not prevented from doing so because of other legal protections offered to them.

This is a fascinating issue; it’ll be interesting to see how California’s approach affects voting both within the Golden State and nationwide. Stay tuned.

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