Give mentally ill voting rights

By Ryan Robbins
The Maine Campus

Maine voters will have an opportunity to right a blatant injustice when they go to the polls Nov. 4. Question 5 on the state ballot asks voters whether they favor amending the state constitution to allow people who are under guardianship for mental illness the right to vote.
In general, people under guardianship have mental retardation or a mental illness. Of these two categories, only people who are under guardianship because they have a mental illness are prohibited from voting.
Although there is no organized opposition to Question 5, opponents, such as Rep. Vaughn Stedman, R-Hartland, say that people under guardianship for mental illness shouldn't be allowed to vote because they lack the capacity to make an informed decision.
"It seems to me like voting is an important issue," Stedman told the Bangor Daily News recently. "If someone is not able to make decisions regarding life activities without help, then voting shouldn't be allowed because they couldn't make the decision without help."
OK, Mr. Stedman. I suppose Gov. Angus King and other high-ranking officials shouldn't be allowed to vote because they depend heavily on advisers in making decisions.
Proponents of the amendment, such as Bangor Mental Health Institute patient advocate Richard Roelofs, wonder what, if any, purpose is served by prohibiting people under guardianship for mental illness from voting.
Being under guardianship because you have a mental illness doesn't mean you're incapable of making an informed decision at the polls. People can be placed under guardianship by the courts for several reasons, among them being unable to manage finances properly. I know of lots of people who shouldn't be allowed to own a credit card, let alone a checkbook. Take a look at how the government handles money.
If anything, people under guardianship for mental illness should be allowed to vote. After all, the state calls the shots in determining how people with mental illness will be treated.
Is there a person alive today who has made an informed decision at the polls every election for every referendum question, for every office?
It's not unheard of for legislators to vote for and against bills based solely on which party drafted the bill. Citizens routinely vote for candidates based on the candidates' appearance. How irrational is that?
Of course, only a little more than half of eligible voters in Maine even bother to vote.
What Question 5 comes down to is whether the electorate is ignorant enough to continue blatant discrimination that serves no compelling interest. Joe Six-pack sits in his trashy trailer down the road, guzzles beer, doesn't watch the evening news and doesn't read the newspaper. He's not likely to vote. But he can if he wants to, even if he has no idea what he's doing when he completes the arrow on the ballot.
On the other hand, David Bargmann, who lives in a South Portland group home, can't vote because he's under state guardianship for having a mental illness. It doesn't matter that Bargmann studied political science at MIT. It doesn't matter that he and three of his housemates were interested enough in the political process that they went to City Hall last fall to register, only to be turned away.
Maine gave people under guardianship for mental retardation the right to vote in 1965. Theoretically, a person with an IQ of 40 who can't talk, can't read and doesn't watch the news could walk into the polls Nov. 4 and vote.
The issue isn't really whether a person can make an informed decision. If it were, perhaps we should be required to take a test to see whether we know what voting yes on referendum questions would mean and what candidates stand for.
There should be no lines drawn when it comes to who can vote. Voting is a right, not a privilege. What imminent doom could possibly befall us if the 50 to 100 people under guardianship in Maine for mental illness were allowed to vote? These people have done nothing wrong. Like you and I, they are trying to be productive members of society. Vote "yes" on Question 5.

This column originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 1997, edition of The Maine Campus. Copyright 1997, Ryan R. Robbins.