LOS ANGELES (AP) -
At a time when election officials are struggling to convince more Americans
to vote, advocates for the disabled say thousands of people with autism
spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and other intellectual or developmental
disabilities have been systematically denied that basic right in the
nation’s largest county.
A Voting Rights Act
complaint to be filed Thursday with the U.S. Justice Department goes to a
politically delicate subject that states have grappled with over the years:
Where is the line to disqualify someone from the voting booth because of a
cognitive or developmental impairment?
The complaint by
the Disability and Abuse Project argues that intellectual and developmental
disabilities, including conditions such as Down syndrome, are not automatic
barriers to participating in elections. It seeks a sweeping review of voting
eligibility in Los Angeles County in such cases, arguing that thousands of
people with those disabilities have lost the right to vote during the last
“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,” Thomas F. Coleman, the group’s legal director, said in a
At issue in the
California case is access to the ballot box for adults who enter so-called
limited conservatorships, legal arrangements in which parents or guardians
assume the right to make certain decisions for people who lack the ability
to manage their financial and medical affairs. In the course of taking that
step in court, voting rights are routinely voided, according to the advocacy
California has over
40,000 such cases, and those covered by the arrangements usually live with
their families or in group homes. A recent sample of 61 cases by the
advocacy group in Los Angeles County found that 90 percent of the people
covered by limited conservatorships had been disqualified from voting.
The complaint says
judges in Los Angeles Superior Court use literacy tests to determine if
adults in limited conservatorships should have voting rights, a violation of
the federal Voting Rights Act. It also says that judges and court-appointed
attorneys violate federal laws that allow people with disabilities to have
assistance to complete voter-registration forms and cast ballots.
“Autism is a broad
spectrum, and there can be low skills and there can be high skills. But what
I observed was that people tend to just dismiss it as though they have no
skills,” Teresa Thompson, whose son has autism and whose case helped prompt
the complaint, said in a videotaped statement.
Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Eckhardt Hearn said she had not seen the
complaint and declined comment.
The complaint could
trigger an investigation by the Justice Department. It also asks Superior
Court to rescind thousands of voter-disqualification notices it has issued
in those cases over a decade.
advocates brought attention to the obstacles to voting faced by the
physically disabled. More recently, the focus has shifted to the mentally or
developmentally disabled, who advocates say have long been stigmatized in
the voting process.
In the past,
advocates in Missouri sued to make it easier for people under guardianship
for mental disabilities to vote, and New Jersey voters in 2007 stripped
language from the state Constitution that held “no idiot or insane person
shall enjoy the right of suffrage.”
All but about a
dozen states have some type of law limiting voting rights for individuals
based on competence. But how those laws are enforced varies widely.
, advocates say.
A 2007 report for
the American Bar Association concluded that “excluding the broad and
indefinite category of persons with mental incapacities is not consistent
with either the constitutional right to vote ... or the current
understanding of mental capacity.”
complaint could create a testing ground for such cases. State election law
says a person is considered mentally incompetent and disqualified from
voting if he or she cannot complete a voter-registration form, which the
complaint argues is an illegal literacy test.
“There is this
constant struggle to make sure everyone can vote privately and
independently, regardless of disability,” said Curtis Decker, executive
director of the National Disability Rights Network.