BANGOR – Maine’s decades-old law prohibiting those under guardianship for mental illness from voting also should apply to those incapacitated for other reasons, such as mental retardation and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
State attorneys, in a motion filed this week in U.S. District Court in Bangor, asked for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to define mental illness before a lawsuit against the state is allowed to proceed in federal court.
The state motion is the latest legal move in a federal lawsuit filed in October by the Maine Disability Rights Center on behalf of three mentally ill women from Bangor and Limestone who were prevented from voting under the provision.
The lawsuit looks to overturn the constitutional amendment, saying it unfairly singles out mentally ill people regardless of their ability to understand the voting process.
Assistant Attorney General William Stokes, representing the state, said Tuesday that, on the contrary, the provision was meant to include all of those – not just the mentally ill – judged to be unable to understand the voting process.
“[The plaintiffs] claim that the provision is irrational because it singles out only one type of person,” Stokes said of the amendment, which was added in 1965. “The research we’ve done clearly indicates that it doesn’t.”
But Stokes was quick to add that the provision also was not meant to prevent an entire group of people, such as the mentally ill or mentally retarded, from voting.
“On that same note, merely because you have a mental illness and are under guardianship, that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t be able to vote,” Stokes said. “Our goal is not to disenfranchise anybody.”
Kristin Aiello, an attorney for the Maine Disability Rights Center in Augusta, condemned the state’s position, saying it only served to further limit the number of potential voters.
“It’s distressing that [the Attorney General’s Office] would actually do this, and essentially put more people in this category,” Aiello said Tuesday. “Basically, they’re further disenfranchising people who can vote under the current guidelines.”
Indeed, the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, has specifically stated that those under guardianship for mental retardation – or for any other reason besides mental illness – are allowed to vote.
As interpreted by the Secretary of State, the voting restriction is estimated to affect fewer than 1,000 people statewide.
Domna Giatis, communications director for the Secretary of State’s Office said that the department, after earlier consultations with the attorney general, chose to adopt the more recent definition of mental illness, which includes psychosis, depression, schizophrenia and a number of other illnesses. It does not include conditions such as mental retardation or senility.
She said, however, that the department would adopt the state court’s interpretation, should it be asked to make a decision in the case.
Stokes said that the Probate Court, which determines if a person should be placed under guardianship, should decide on a case-by-case basis if a person has the capacity to vote.
Aiello contended that, historically, the Probate Court has rarely addressed the voting issue when determining if someone would be placed under guardianship.
“They concern themselves with things like if the person wears the right clothes for the right season,” she said. “It’s very rare that you have an attorney or someone being considered for guardianship who’s savvy enough to protect their voting rights.”
Before the November election, the plaintiff from Limestone successfully amended her guardianship in Probate Court and was allowed to vote.
Also in November, Maine voters – for the second time in four years – rejected an amendment that would have lifted the restriction. In that election, 60.5 percent of voters rejected the change, with 39.5 percent in favor of allowing mentally ill people with guardians to vote.
Maine and Maryland are the only two states to prevent those under guardianship for mental illness or mental disability from voting, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Several other states have restrictions of the mentally incompetent from voting.