Though an estimated 113 million US citizens got to vote in the midterms, thousands more were left out — unable to vote or even register because of laws that consider them mentally incapable of doing so. These state laws affect the thousands of adults in the US under guardianship — people who, because of a disability, have been determined legally to be incapable of performing necessary daily tasks for themselves, and therefore are in need of a guardian to help them. The status of their right to vote — much as for convicted felons — is determined by the state they live in. However, unlike the widely publicized disenfranchisement of felons, many people are unaware of the problems facing those under guardianship. “This is an issue that, for the large part, I think, flies under the radar if you are not working on it,” Michelle Bishop, voting rights specialist for the National Disability Rights network, told WhoWhatWhy. “It’s not being talked about. The average American doesn’t know this type of thing happens, that you can have your right to vote denied based on having a disability.”
People can be placed under guardianship, or conservatorship, as it is known in some states, or interdictions, the equivalent in Louisiana, for a surprisingly wide range of reasons. The umbrella covers everything from mental illnesses, like severe schizophrenia, to cognitive disabilities like Down Syndrome, and even physical disabilities, such as a lack of motor function in their limbs that prevent individuals from going about their daily lives without assistance.
There is no legal distinction between a guardianship for someone with a mental disability and one for someone with physical disabilities. If the law in a particular state prevents people under guardianship from voting, the ward can’t vote. If the probate judge overseeing the guardianship hearing finds that the person isn’t competent — regardless of the judge’s reason for making that call — the ward can’t vote.