"My mom won't take me to vote, but I want to go," a young woman says to me as I take questions from her group. I ask her if she lives with her mother, and she answers that she and her husband do. Her mother does vote, but the woman tells me, "My mom doesn't think me or my husband are smart enough to vote."
The young woman has mental retardation, and I am visiting the workshop that she attends daily. I have just talked to the group about their voting rights. I encourage the young lady to tell her mother that she is capable of making decisions about who she wants to be the next governor, and that her mother should take her along when she goes to vote. I tell her that if she can make decisions about what she wants to wear and whether or not she wants to get married, she can vote. Many people with full mental capacity vote knowing very little information about the candidates that they vote for. Why should a person with mental retardation be any different?
I give the group fliers and tell them to take them home and show their families. Another man speaks up and says his family takes him to vote. A woman who is on staff at the workshop tells me that she knows sometimes the pollworkers take one look at her "clients" and tell them they are not allowed to vote—even if they are registered. I nod and explain that my agency, the Mississippi Protection and Advocacy System, is trying to educate pollworkers and election officials about voter rights as well.
The law in Mississippi is vague when it comes to voter competency. To paraphrase Mississippi Code, anyone over age 18 who is not an "idiot or insane person" can vote. What constitutes an "idiot or insane person"? That seems to be open to interpretation. Some states (most recently New Jersey) are working to remove such archaic language from the law. It remains to be seen whether Mississippi will seek to do the same. But the law allows people with mental illness and mental retardation to register, and that little registration card is enough to allow these people to vote.
The ongoing voter ID controversy is another problem for people with mental retardation. I always ask how many in the group actually have photo ID, and inevitably fewer than half raise their hands. If the clients live in a group home or supervised apartments, they might be required to have a photo ID, but if they live at home with family, it is up to them. The problem lies in the fact that most of these clients do not have items like utility bills in their name, making it nearly impossible to prove residency and get an ID. If voter ID is enforced, a large number of these people will be disenfranchised. (I have been encouraging all of them to go ahead and get a state ID or some sort of other photo ID, just in case.)
Besides the issues facing voters with mental disabilities, there are a large number of pollworkers who discriminate against voters with physical disabilities. They do not give blind voters headphones; wheelchair users cannot get in the door of some polling places, and workers accuse voters who bring someone to assist them of voter fraud. The cry coming from many polling precincts is: "We don't have the money to make our polling places accessible." But this is simply not true. Since the inception of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, the federal election commission has made money available for election officials to use in bringing the polls up to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Since HAVA went into effect, we have seen some improvements, but there is still much progress to be made. MPAS has provided assistance and training for pollworkers, election officials and people with disabilities over the last few years and will continue to do so, but the best way to incite change is for the voters themselves to take charge as self-advocates. Below are some of the rights that all voters, but particularly voters with disabilities, have:
- You have the right to vote by yourself or with help if you are blind, physically disabled or cannot read or write. You can select who you want to assist you, but that person cannot be your employer, your employer's representative or any member of the voter's union.
- Even if you have a legal guardian/conservator, you may vote unless a court has specifically said you cannot.
- You have the right to vote the way you want.
- You have the right to get help if someone tries to stop you from voting.
- If you are waiting in line when the poll closes, you must be allowed to vote.
- Polling places should be physically accessible to people with disabilities. There should be adequate accessible parking, entrances, walkways and bathrooms. You have the right to have a ballot or voting machine brought to the curb if you cannot enter the polling place.
Andi Agnew is the Community Services Advocate with Mississippi Protection and Advocacy System. For more information, contact MPAS at 601-981-8207.