Even as election officials fret over low voter turnout, anywhere from 500,000 to 1,250,000 people may be banned from voting booths in November. These people represent full, law-abiding citizens of the United States. Many are already registered to vote, but state laws prohibit them from casting a ballot. Their crime: to suffer from mental disabilities that place them under psychological guardianship.
"Of the 50 states in our nation, 44 contain constitutional laws and statutes that bar individuals with emotional or cognitive impairment from voting," said Kay Schriner, research fellow at the Fulbright Institute of International Relations. "The only other group of Americans who face such disenfranchisement are convicted felons."
Schriner and colleague Lisa Ochs, an assistant professor of counseling and psychology at Arkansas State University, have devoted years to identifying such laws in state constitutions and to tracing the evolution and the effects of these laws throughout history.
Their current work is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, the research has been used for the preparation of an amicus brief presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of University of Alabama v. Patricia Garrett.
According to Schriner's research, the practice of revoking voting rights for people with mental disabilities began with the earliest state constitutions, drafted and ratified in the 1700s. Early American politicians felt that excluding "the idiot and insane" would ensure that the voting public consisted only of those capable of making informed and intelligent political decisions.
But as medical and social concepts of mental disability continued to evolve, these exclusionary laws were neither altered nor erased. In fact, states persisted in drafting and amending their constitutions to include such laws until as late as 1959.
"The wording and the reasoning of these laws are holdovers from 18th and 19th century attitudes about the mentally disabled," Schriner said. "But the fact that Missouri adopted their disenfranchisement law in 1945 and that Alaska joined the union with one in 1959 means this is not just an 18th century phenomenon."
In recent years, several states have faced referenda to remove the laws from their constitutions. But unlike other defunct state laws -- which are regularly revoked through this process -- the disenfranchisement laws frequently have been upheld.
One of the main problems with these laws can be their archaic wording. Though intended to bar debilitating cases of mental illness, in a few states, the laws have disenfranchised people under guardianship for depression or bipolar disorder. While these conditions can cause personal and social difficulties, they often don't impair a person's ability to understand complex issues or make reasonable decisions. Furthermore, such disorders are usually controlled through medication.
According to Schriner, disenfranchisement not only denies these individuals the right to vote but also represents an act of discrimination based on outdated values and misconceptions. "These statutes take an ugly social stigma and codify it in law," she said.
Unfortunately, the worst effect of disenfranchisement laws is not the stigma they attach to people with mental illnesses, but the fact that they prevent those people from having a voice in national politics. In the worst case scenario, as long as states ban the mentally disabled from voting, political candidates and parties will feel little pressure to address the issues that concern these citizens.
But Schriner feels the nation is moving into a critical period, when disability issues now rise to the attention of the public and of politicians. "In this election, both Bush and Gore have been issuing press releases about disability issues, holding campaign events hosted by disability organizations," she said.
As these issues come to light, it becomes increasingly important that people with disabilities -- both physical and mental -- be allowed to participate in the formation of policies that directly affect them.
Rather than making a blanket discrimination against people with mental illnesses, Schriner suggests that states conduct individual assessments of competency before banning a person from the election process. Yet even this can cause personal humiliation and could be viewed as a form of discrimination, Schriner said.
A better solution would be to throw out the disenfranchisement laws altogether and follow one simple rule: if a person can fill out a voting registration card, that person should then be considered competent to vote.
"Someone in an active psychotic state is not likely to sit down and register to vote or to visit their local polling place," said Schriner. "It's ridiculous even to worry about that, let alone write a law to prevent it."
- University of Arkansas release