[Image via respectabilityusa]
Last year, I blogged about legislation in California that would protect people with disabilities from losing their right to vote when they are placed under a court guardianship by establishing the presumption that they are competent to vote unless proven otherwise. That bill passed and went into effect in 2016 – and now there is a push for affected individuals previously stripped of their rights to get them back in time for this year’s election. The Associated Press has more:
A former producer at NPR who lost his ability to walk and speak asked a judge Tuesday to restore his right to vote under a new California law that makes it easier for people with disabilities to keep that right and regain it if lost.
David Rector, 66, handed a letter to a court clerk shortly after an advocacy group filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department asking that California be required to notify people who have been disqualified from voting about the law in time for the Nov. 8 election.
“How are these folks supposed to know about the right to get their voting rights back unless somebody tells them?” Thomas Coleman, legal director of the Spectrum Group, said outside the federal building in downtown San Diego. “The state judiciary has been dragging its feet.”
For years, California judges had stripped away the voting rights of people with some disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, “almost as a matter of routine,” Coleman said.
Mandy Griffith, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, declined to discuss the status of a year-old Justice Department investigation, launched at Coleman’s request, into whether California unlawfully deprives disabled people of voting rights.
Rector was pushed in his wheelchair several blocks to San Diego Superior Court to deliver his written request. Wearing a white T-shirt with black letters that said, “I want to vote,” he looked at a computer with eye-tracking software that voiced his desire to cast a ballot.
A judge will consider the request, court spokeswoman Karen Dalton said.
The push is part of a larger effort to counteract inconsistent application of conservatorship to voting rights for people with disabilities in the courts, and is aimed at helping people who were previously stripped of those rights:
All but about a dozen states have some type of law limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence. Advocates say how those laws are enforced varies widely — not just by state but by county and judge.
Supporters of the limits say the restrictions protect against voter fraud.
Under California’s new law, which took effect Jan. 1, seniors and other people with disabilities who are assigned conservators to manage their financial and other affairs keep the right to vote unless a court finds “clear and convincing evidence” that they cannot express a desire to exercise it.
“They’re not at the head of the pack, but they’re definitely on the forefront,” said Michelle Bishop, voting rights specialist at the National Disability Rights Network. “This idea that you simply have to express the desire to vote is how we want people to be thinking about voting rights.”
Coleman anticipates the law will provide voting protections in conservatorship cases going forward. The challenge, he said, is getting the word out to people who have lost the right — a number he estimates at 32,000 in California based on a review of Los Angeles County records.
Rector, who lost the ability to speak or move his limbs after a stroke in 2008, was able to vote afterwards – until his rights were taken away by a court as a consequence of appointing a conservator:
Rector voted in 2010, telling his fiancee of his opinions on a flurry of state ballot measures. At a hearing the following year to appoint [her] his conservator, Rector cried out after a judge checked a box that said he could no longer vote.
“We knew it was coming, but we didn’t know there was anything that could be done about it,” said [fiancee] Alexander-Kasparik, describing it as a devastating blow.
This is important work, not just for people with disabilities but for the judicial system as well; while it may be easier simply to assume that individuals who require conservatorships aren’t interested in or capable of voting, that often isn’t the case – and California now gives those voters the benefit of the doubt and the protection of the law. It will will be interesting to see if Mr. Rector and others like him who lost those rights previously are successful in restoring what they believe is rightly theirs: the ability to cast a ballot.