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 decade. “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 statement.
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 group.
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.