Forty-four states in the United States today bar people with mental illnesses from voting. Apart from laws affecting felons, these are the last overt voting restrictions on the books for citizens over 18. The exclusionary laws typically used in most states apply to those found to be “mentally incompetent” by the court and then placed under legal guardianship, a ruling that affects as many as 1.2 million people nationwide.
Like felon disenfranchisement laws, voting rights for the mentally ill vary by state. In Arkansas and nine other states, archaic constitutional language disenfranchises “idiots” and the “insane.” In Massachusetts and Minnesota all it takes to lose the right to vote is to be placed under a legal guardian. “These laws are based on historical misperceptions associated with mental illness, not on logic,” said Lisa Ochs, who worked with the Project on Disability Politics at the University of Arkansas. Three disenfranchised women under guardianship in Maine successfully challenged the restriction in 2001. A federal judge struck down the law, saying it unfairly singled out a group of citizens “based on a stereotype rather than any actual relevant incapacity.” Advocates are hoping the ruling can set a precedent for other states with similar laws.
While felons and the mentally ill are often legally barred from voting, there are still other citizens who encounter barriers despite laws enacted to protect them. Sadly, these tend to be groups who have been discriminated against historically: African-Americans, non-English speakers and the disabled. Though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 offers legal protection to African-Americans and other minorities, many continue to experience “structural disenfranchisement”–the result of living in poor communities. While overt discrimination once took the form of poll taxes and literacy tests, our current system takes the form of neglect–poor districts often have the poorest voting equipment, the least-trained poll workers and the longest lines. In 2000, in some inner-city precincts in Chicago, almost 40 percent of votes for President were lost because of antiquated machines. In adjacent white communities that could afford newer equipment, the rate was less than 1 percent.
For Americans who do not speak English, voting can be intimidating and confusing. A 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act sought to correct this by stipulating that in counties where more than 5 percent of the people have limited English skills, bilingual voting materials must be made available. Despite this, compliance remains a problem. Last year Asian-Americans faced a range of Election Day frustrations across New York City. Ballots contained faulty translations of candidates’ names, and poorly trained poll workers turned some Asians away simply because they didn’t know how to look up their names on the voter rolls, while others were reported to be rude and hostile.
Some 30 million disabled people still face impediments at more than 80 percent of polling places. When Elyse Nathan arrived at her polling place in West Orange, New Jersey, last year, she had been assured that the site was handicapped-accessible, a requirement for her because of her worsening multiple sclerosis. But when “access” turned out to be a piece of plywood covered with carpeting, a local sheriff decided it wasn’t safe for her to use. Determined to vote, Nathan waited three hours until the fire department arrived to carry her down the stairs and then back up once she had voted. The incident, which left her embarrassed and angry, is a more recent example of what the General Accounting Office found in 2001.