Disabled and Disenfranchised

As many as 34 million Americans with disabilities could head to the polls in November, even as advocates say problems with access remain widespread. People with developmental and mental disabilities can face an especially tough time at the polls — assuming they’re allowed to vote at all.

According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an organization that looks at voting rights for people with mental disabilities across the country, all but 11 states have laws on the books that can restrict voting for people with mental disabilities. At particular issue are people placed under guardianship (known in some states as “conservatorship”) since advocates say guardianship orders rarely have anything to do with whether a person is competent enough to vote.

Disability rights advocates argue these restrictions run contra to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says that “reasonable” accommodations must be made so that a person can engage with the democratic process.

“We are the last demographic within the U.S. where you can take away our right to vote because of our identity,” said Michelle Bishop, a disability voting rights specialist who works for the National Disability Rights Network, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. “It’s horrifying that this is happening. The idea that you can’t make a decision on who to vote for is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be disabled.”

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