Voters under guardianship win a round

The rights of Minnesota voters with disabilities and the state’s election day registration program have won a round in U.S. District Court as Judge Donovan Frank on Aug. 17 dismissed a lawsuit led by the Minnesota Voters Alliance. The lawsuit raised significant challenges and was being watched closely by the state’s disability community, especially in light of challenge to voters who are under court-ordered guardianship. More than 22,000 Minnesotans are currently under guardianship.

People with disabilities and their advocates are pleased that Frank ruled in their favor, yet their optimism may be short-lived. The plaintiffs have vowed to appeal Frank’s decision, in the hopes of getting a decision in their favor prior to the November election. An appeal would go to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. As of Access Press deadline no appeal had been filed.

The judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not make a valid challenge to Minnesota’s law and legal decisions that protect the voting rights of persons under guardianship. The  plaintiffs had challenged the constitutionality of the guardianship statue as it pertains to voting.

In his ruling Frank indicated that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to make their claims related to voters under guardianship. The judge did review the constitutional questions they raised and indicated that current state law needs to prevail. Under state law persons under guardianship only lose their right to vote if a judge takes away that right. “The constitutional prohibition against voting based on guardianship status applies only when there has been an individualized judicial finding of incapacity to vote,” Frank stated.

The Minnesota Disability Law Center and The Arc Minnesota filed an amicus or “friend of the court” brief with Frank during the court proceeding. The brief cited the legal and legislative basis for the presumption that people with disabilities under guardianship have the right to vote. Frank said the brief provided a “comprehensive overview and history of Minnesota guardianship law.”

Frank also stated, “The amicus brief also discusses the history relating to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) as well as the Voting Rights Act. (See id.) In passing the ADA, Congress acknowledged that society has historically isolated and segregated individuals with disabilities and that discrimination against individuals with disabilities continues to persist in many critical areas, including voting. See 42 U.S.C. § 1210(a)(2-3). Also, the Voting Rights Act states that “[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice, other than the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

“Judge Frank’s decision is a victory for people with disabilities,” said Justin Page, Advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Disability Law Center. “The court rightly recognized that under Minnesota law, people with disabilities who have guardians still have the right to vote, unless a court specifically takes it away.” The Minnesota Disability Law Center is the statewide federally mandated protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities. Its purpose is to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities.

“This decision means that the voice of people with disabilities can still be heard at their polling places in this election year,” said Steve Larson, The Arc Minnesota senior policy director. “Minnesota law recognizes the right of people with disabilities to have a say in decisions that affect their daily lives, including whom their elected officials will be. The lawsuit made inaccurate assumptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities to have a voice at the ballot box. We are extremely pleased with the court’s ruling.”

Minnesota law presumes that individuals under guardianship have the right to vote and provides that individuals under guardianship have the right to vote unless a court specifically revokes that right. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs sought change the legal presumption and make it more difficult for individuals under guardianship to vote. They used examples from around the state, with most in Crow Wing County, to allege that people with disabilities should not have been allowed to vote in past elections.

Their descriptions of voters angered many in the disability community. Frank rejected the challenge because the plaintiffs failed “to allege a valid constitutional harm with respect to Minnesota’s voter eligibility provisions for persons under guardianship.”

Another issue that affects voters with disabilities was the challenge to same-day registration, which Frank also rejected. In the disability community same-day registration is used by people who have moved and by people who may be in a group home or nursing home.

More than 540,000 voters used same day registration in the 2008 presidential election. Similar or higher numbers are expected Nov. 6. The Minnesota Voters Alliance, state Rep. Sondra Erickson R-Princeton and other groups challenged same-day registration because they don’t want votes counted before voters’ eligibility is confirmed. With close elections including the U.S. Senate Franken-Coleman race, the plaintiffs contended that counting ineligible votes dilutes the rights of eligible voters.

Voters who register on election day must bring specific documents to provide identity and residency, or they can have someone who lives in the precinct vouch for them. State and county officials had contended that they shouldn’t have to do more than what is currently required to provide eligibility. Frank agreed, saying it is an “erroneous premise” that election officials must check eligibility before actually counting votes.

“Under Minnesota election statutes, voters themselves certify their eligibility to vote, under threat of criminal prosecution if they do so falsely,” the judge stated. “This decision today means that the half-million Minnesotans who were relying on election day registration to update their registration, or because they just turned 18, this means they will be able to vote smoothly,” said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie in a statement. Ritchie and other state and county election officials were defendants in the lawsuit.

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