Monday, November 03, 2008

Advocates push for voting rights for mentally ill

From the Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Clyde Hoy has only missed one election. It was 2002, and the manic depression he had battled for nearly 20 years had taken hold again, landing him in a state psychiatric hospital.

"I wanted to vote, but I felt that I didn't have any right at all," said the 48-year-old Hoy. "I asked and nobody gave me an answer. There wasn't an option."

Advocates are working to change that with a nationwide effort to make sure those with mental disabilities know their rights and exercise them on Election Day.

For months, state advocates have visited psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities to help those with mental disabilities register to vote or fill out absentee ballots. But others are concerned that allowing outsiders to help — whether assisting with ballots or driving voters to the polls — could subject people to undue influence.

Members of both parties often accuse opponents of trolling for votes in hospitals and nursing homes, notorious places for voter fraud. A former Pennsylvania congressman who was convicted in 1998 of filling out absentee ballots in the names of nursing home residents, and similar accusations often surface at the local level.

"They have a right to vote, but it is highly unethical for anyone from any office, state or otherwise, to go into these facilities unrequested by the patients or family members, to help them vote," said Republican Virginia Sen. Steve Martin. "If they were competent to do it, they wouldn't be needing this help anyway."

But advocates say that kind of thinking has stigmatized the mentally ill for decades and highlights the importance of reminding them — and election officials — of their rights.

All but 11 states have some type of law limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence.

More than a dozen states prohibit individuals deemed incompetent or under a guardian's care from voting. Another 20 states ban voting only if a court has determined that the individual specifically lacks the capacity to vote.

Laws in some states still bar voting by people referred to using outdated terms such as "idiots" or the "insane," but those are rarely enforced.

"Everyone assumes that if you're in a mental hospital you're totally out of it, you're not functioning at any level, which is just not true," said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network.

Advocates said those in psychiatric hospitals and other facilities often are more in tune with what's going on in elections because they have more time to watch television, read the newspapers and research the candidates.

They also have much more at stake because they often are dependent on the government, said Jennifer Mathis, deputy legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

"It's very frustrating to see situations where they're barred from voting on issues that have such an impact on their life," Mathis said.

In 1998, election officials in New Jersey refused to count ballots from residents of a state psychiatric hospital unless the voters could prove they were competent, which later was ruled unconstitutional.

Election officials in Virginia interpreted the law to say that only people with physical disabilities could cast absentee ballots. A lawsuit led to that law being expanded this year to include mental disabilities.

The Bazelon Center cites a recent study of Philadelphia nursing homes that revealed residents were denied the right to vote because staff did not think they were competent even though there is no voter-competency requirement in Pennsylvania law.

In states that do limit voting based on competence, that determination is left up to the courts — not poll workers or service providers.

"The thing we are nervous about is if we get all these people excited and get them to polls are they going to be in any way intimidated, turned away or challenged? That can be a pretty daunting experience," Decker said.

For years disability advocates focused their attention on the barriers to voting for the physically disabled, such as making polling places assessable.

Only recently, and with the help of federal funding, did advocates focus on the mentally disabled. Candidates, Decker said, have ignored them for years.

"Part of the problem is that we haven't proven that we are a voting block to be reckoned with," Decker said. "People go after the Hispanic vote, they go after the black vote, but people haven't figured out that people with disabilities are very dependent on government programs and have an interest in who's running the government."

Hoy now works for a peer group and helps with the recovery program at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in the Shenandoah Valley. He said helping patients get registered to vote can go a long way in their recovery.

"A very simple thing like voting means a lot to people who have given up, who just feel like here's another thing taken from me," Hoy said.

Hoy said he is looking forward to voting again on Tuesday. He only hopes the lines won't be too long.