June 06, 2020

Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to end discrimination against persons under guardianship for mental illness for the purpose of voting?

Maine’s Constitution, as adopted in 1821, withheld the right to vote from a lot of people – paupers, Indians and the insane, to name but a few. Through the years, these patently offensive exclusions have been dropped, and now only one remains. Today, Maine’s Constitution, as last amended on the issue of voting rights in 1965, now withholds the franchise from only one group of citizens – the mentally ill under guardianship.

It is an abridgment of rights that is archaic at best; at worst, it is prejudice of the most indefensible kind. That it persists in the year 2000 demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness and it ignores the significant advances made in treating it. That Maine is the only state that takes a fundamental right of citizenship away from an entire group of people – estimated at 1,000 – who happen to be ill, with no consideration given to individual circumstances, is an embarrassment to the entire state.

Mental illness is just that, an illness. It is an illness that can strike anyone at any time – it is estimated, in fact, that 10 percent of Americans will suffer from mental illness to some degree at some point in their lives. It can be treated.

While those treatments are being pursued, people with mental illness often are placed under guardianship as the result of a determination made in Probate Court that the individual should have some degree of formal supervision. The guardian can be a relative, friend or another responsible party. The role of the guardian could be to see that the individual gets proper medical care, is taking the prescribed medication, is keeping clean and well fed, is not being victimized by criminals. It could be just to see that the individual is paying bills and keeping the checkbook balanced. No matter how mild the affliction or how small the issue, the Maine Constitution says that a mentally ill person who needs a guardian cannot vote.

The absurdities pile up fast. All other persons under guardianship can vote, including the mentally retarded and those with severe head injuries. The mentally ill not under guardianship can vote, which means that a mentally ill person living on the street and getting no care whatsoever can vote, while a mentally ill person getting the very best care cannot. Probate judges, well trained in determining whether a person should have a legal guardian for legal purposes, have no training at all in ascertaining mental competence and they should not be expected to do so.

Many states do not abridge the voting rights of the mentally ill at all. Of the 30 that do, the question of whether that person should have a legal guardian is handled as an issue entirely separate from that of whether the person is, if getting proper care, able to make informed, independent decisions. A lot has changed since 1821, the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness has advanced immeasurably since 1965. Maine has some catching up to do; voting yes on Question 5 is the place to start.

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