Potential legislation in Iowa case is being watched by advocacy groups, legal scholars
An Iowa woman wants to change a state law to require that developmentally disabled voters be supervised when they cast a ballot. The complaint is generating debate in Iowa’s disability community and is being followed elsewhere in the nation.
Brenda Lyddon of Deep River, in central Iowa, wants to change the law. Lyddon’s son Kristo-pher Willis, 26, is developmentally disabled and lives in a Grinnell group home. She was upset to learn that staff at the home took her son to a polling place on Election Day despite her instructions not to.
”I went to the home and told the person who is in charge of the home he is not allowed to vote,” said Lyddon.” I am his mother and he was not allowed to vote.
”I don’t want to take away a person’s right to vote,” said Lyddon to Deep River. “It’s just that a lot of us, (group) homes and parents, need to work together and agree on what’s best for our loved ones.”
Lyddon, who has guardianship over most of her son’s legal decision, unsuccessfully challenged his ballot.
Lyddon supported Republican John McCain and her son voted for Democrat Barack Obama, but Lyddon said that’s not why she challenged her son’s ballot.
“He does not have the mental capacity to choose for himself,” she said.
The Grinnell case is one of two Iowa officials are looking at. In Council Bluffs, a woman challenged her elderly mother’s absentee ballot, claiming her mother suffered from dementia and was coerced into casting the ballot by Democratic campaign workers who were going door-to-door asking potential voters if they wanted an absentee ballot.
In that case, the woman supported McCain and her mother reportedly voted for Obama.
That challenge was also unsuccessful.
Len Sandler, a University of Iowa law professor is questioning those who would block a family member’s right to vote.
”It’s one of the rights that are fairly sacred,” said Sandler, He supervises clinical law projects and lectures extensively on disability, assistive technology, accessibility, housing and universal design. He has written articles, briefs and best practice materials on these and other subjects.
Family members cannot block a family member from voting, if that person meets legal requirements. Family members do not have a say as to whether or not person can or cannot vote due to perceived competency. In Iowa (and Minnesota), only the courts can decide if a voter is not mentally competent to vote. Such competency is decided on a case-by-case basis. A check with Minnesota disability groups and law schools found that no one was aware of the Iowa case, but that they would be looking into it and following any attempts to change the law in that state.
”The idea is, ‘what’s in the best interests of the ward and as much power and authority as the individual can apply in their own right,’ that’s what you’re supposed to preserve as much as possible,” Sandler said. “I don’t know that it’s been litigated that often here.”
In Cedar Rapids, the Arc of East Central Iowa holds a voting workshop for disabled people and their families and caregivers. Delaine Petersen, executive director of the Cedar Rapids-based group, said that people need to understand that they have the right to vote, unless that right has been taken away from them.
”It’s the voting process we want them to understand,” said John Morris, executive director of Discovery Living, a non-profit that operates 20 group homes in Cedar Rapids. “I’m sure many of them went out and did vote. There was a real sense of pride that as a citizen they were participating as fully as any citizen.”
Morris said Discovery Living staff members are cautioned not to “unduly influence” residents’ votes, but they are free to discuss politics with them.
”We don’t want them pressuring them to vote one way or another,” he said. “They can remain neutral, be a source of information.”
Linda Langenberg, deputy Iowa secretary of state, said it’s the first time in her 32 years of supervising elections that she’s heard of someone challenging a family member’s ballot. Langenberg was auditor in Linn County for 30 years before moving to the secretary of state’s office two years ago.
Langenberg said it’s not easy to take away someone’s right to vote.
“The Iowa code says the only way you can deny them their right to vote is to have them judged incompetent by a court of law,” said Langenberg, who oversees election and voter registration.
She said nothing improper was ound in the Council Bluffs case, and in the Grinnell County case the individual in question knew who he wanted to vote for.
“Do you take away that vote because in your mind they don’t have the mental capacity? But maybe they do,” Langenberg said.
“So who makes that judgment?” Langenberg asked. “It is a very sensitive area. There are definitely cases where people appear to be incompetent but they haven’t been judged incompetent by a court and until a judge says that we can’t make that judgment.”
This article was written using material from the Associated Press, Cedar Rapids Gazette and Council Bluffs Nonpariel