Complaint Alleges Disabled Face Discrimination at the Voting Booth

A Voting Rights Act complaint filed with the U.S. Justice Department alleges that thousands of individuals with disabilities in Los Angeles County were unlawfully disqualified from being able to vote in state and national elections over the past decade. It was submitted by the Disability and Abuse Project, who argue that current requirements for receiving a voter registration card discriminate against many individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities.

A review of voting eligibility in Los Angeles County showed that 90% of individuals covered by limited conservatorships had been disqualified from voting. A limited conservatorship is a legal arrangement in which a parent or guardian retains the right to make certain decisions for adult children who lack the ability to manage their financial and medical affairs, affecting many individuals with conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The group’s legal director, Thomas F. Coleman says,

“We want these past injustices to be corrected, and we want the judges and court-appointed attorneys to protect, not violate, the rights of people with developmental disabilities.”

According to the complaint, judges in Los Angeles County have violated the Federal Voting Rights Act by using literacy tests as a means of awarding or refusing voting rights to individuals with disabilities. The complaint also alleges that judges and court-appointed attorneys failed to offer adequate assistance to individuals with disabilities in completing voter registration forms and casting ballots. Under current law, an individual is disqualified from voting if he or she is unable to fill out a voter registration form, a rule advocates claim is basically an illegal literacy test.

The complaint could lead to an investigation by the Justice Department. It is also asking the Supreme Court to rescind thousands of voter-disqualification notices distributed over the past decade.

Other states have made strides towards giving individuals with disabilities the right to vote in recent years. According to a 2007 report for the American Bar Association,

“excluding the broad and indefinite category of persons with mental in-capacities is not consistent with either the constitutional right to vote. . . or the current understanding of mental capacity.”

This complaint could create a precedent for similar lawsuits in other states. There has been much attention to the barriers faced by the physically disabled regarding access to voting, but the fight to allow those with intellectual and developmental disabilities is now heating up. In 2007, the state of New Jersey removed language from the state constitution stating that “no idiot or insane person shall enjoy the right of suffrage.” Currently, all but a dozen states have laws limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence.

Advocates hope this complaint will bring attention to an injustice facing many Americans across the country, and will ultimately lead to reforms in procedures determining voting eligibility for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, says,

“There is this constant struggle to make sure everyone can vote privately and independently, regardless of disability.”