The Vote and Presumed Mental Ability

“Brain Coral” by Laszlo Ilyes.

Groups excluded from the vote have often been told that they didn’t have the ‘right stuff’ to participate in choosing governments. When women have been denied, they have been regularly described as too emotional and lacking in critical judgment.  Much the same has been said about similarly disadvantaged racial groups.  Literacy requirements have made the same link between political competence and particular evidence of intelligence.

A 2004 examination of electoral laws in 63 democracies showed that only 4—Canada, Ireland, Italy and Sweden—lacked restrictions on citizens with mental disabilities (Blais, massicotte and Yoshinaka). Not until 1993, after a court challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the Canadian Disability Rights Council, were people with mental disabilities allowed the federal franchise (Prince, 15). As late as 1997, 44 American states “had language in their constitutions, statutes, or case law barring voting by some subgroups of persons with mental illness or mental retardation.”(Applebaum). As in Canada, this exclusion has drawn protest. In 2000, the New Hampshire branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill “sponsored a voter registration drive”(Applebaum) and community and civil rights groups have taken up the cause of enfranchisement in many jurisdictions. The issue is far from settled as continuing confrontations between supporters and opponents in a host of American states demonstrates (Bellick). In 2010 controversy still greeted the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, in response to an appeal by a man suffering from manic depression, that any absolute bar “violated the right to free elections.”(Buyse).

Some nations have introduced electoral tools to assist persons with disabilities. In the 2007 Australian federal election “electronically assisted voted was trialed to enable electors who were blind or vision impaired to vote independently.” Elections Canada has supported research on the difficulties of access for vulnerable communities, including those with “special needs”, a term that covers physical and mental disabilities. It has also provided “electoral information in Braille, plain language, large print and sign language (both American Sign Language and langue des signes québécoise); on audio-cassette and diskette; and broadcast on VoicePrint” to remove some former barriers to access (Prince 30). Such advances only begin to address the greatest cause of low involvement by people with disabilities.  As  DiAubin and Stienstra (2004) have demonstrated for Canada, prejudice drives much underrepresentation.  Michael Prince’s very useful study for Elections Canada also concludes that a great deal more research is needed to understand the nature and practices of exclusion as well as the means of achieving fairness and equity.

As Canada and many other developed nations face an aging population, the issue of intellectual competence is only likely to become prominent. We know that institutionalization of any type, as Genevieve LeBaron’s post on the consequences of incarceration confirms, raises questions about civil rights. Indeed the Schizoprhenia Fellowship of New Youth Wales, Australia “suggests that 60% of people admitted to prisons have an active mental illness.”(Australian Human Rights Commission).  Especially given Canada’s poor performance in home services, most of the elderly are likely to face some period in ‘assisted living’ sites. How are their rights to be guaranteed? In particular, how are the old-old, those over 80 years of age, to be judged as competent?  How are they to be assisted in exercising their political rights? Since self- and other types of assessment have already proved a minefield when it comes to seniors’ possession of drivers’ licences and capacity to remain in their own homes, we can expect considerable debate over their access to the vote.



Applebaum, Paul S. 2000. “Law & Psychiatry: ‘I Vote. I Count’: mental Disability and the Right to Vote,” Psychiatric Services 51: 849-863.

Belluck, Pam. 2007.  “States Face Decisions on Who is Mentally Fit to Vote,” New York Times June 19.

Blais, André, Louis Massicotte and Antonine Yoshinaka. 2001. “Deciding who has the right to vote: a comparative analysis of election laws.” Electoral Studies 20, 1: 41-62.

Buyse, Antonine. 2010. “European Court of Human Rights Reinforces the Right to Vote,” Guardian Legal Network, May 20.

D’Aubin, April, and Deborah Stienstra. 2004. “Access to Electoral Success: Challenges and Opportunities for Candidates with Disabilities in Canada.” Electoral Insight 6,1: 8-14.

Davidson, Diane R., and Miriam Lapp. 2004. “The Evolution of FederalVoting Rights for Canadians with Disabilities.” Electoral Insight 6,1: 15-21.

Leclerc, Michel. 2004. “The Evolution of Access to Voting for People with Disabilities in Quebec.” Electoral Insight 6,1: 22-25.

Prince, Michael J. 2008. “The Electoral Participation of Persons with Special Needs,” Working Paper Series on Electoral Participation and Outreach Practices. Ottawa: Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.

Stienstra, Deborah, and April D’Aubin. 2006. People with Disabilities and Political Participation.” In Mary Ann McColl and Lynn Jongbloed (EDS.) Disability and Social Policy in Canada, 2nd ed., Concord: Captus University Publicatins, pp. 210-229.

Shields, T.G., et al. 2000. “Disenfranchised: Peole with Disabilities in American Electoral Politics.” Expanding the Scope of Social Science Research on Disability. Edited by B.M. Altman and S.N. Barnartt. Stanford, CT: Jai Press, pp. 177-203.

“The Right to Vote is Not Enjoyed Equally by All Australians” (Australian Human Rights Commission, February 2010),


Vote. It’s Your Rights: A Guide to the Voting rights of People with Mental Disabilities (Washington: Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, 2008);,ProductNumber

Prisoners and the Right to Vote in the United States

The United States bars nearly 5.3 million American citizens from the vote on the grounds that they committed a crime: only 25% are in prison or jail and 75% are either on probation or parole or have completed their sentences (ACLU 2006: 3). Indeed, while it may not come as a surprise that 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense, lesser known is that even after the term of punishment expires, some states deny the right to vote for a period ranging from a number of years to the rest of one’s life.

The United States prison population has skyrocketed in recent decades—increasing 450% between 1980-2009 (The Pew Center 2009)—such that the country now incarcerates one percent of the adult population.  Adding those on probation and parole, one in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of criminal justice supervision  (The Pew Center 2009).  This population is disproportionately made up of young black and Hispanic men. In some states, one in three black men is under some form of criminal justice supervision (The Pew Center 2009).

Disenfranchisement has disproportionately impacted black citizens, and other racial minorities. All have been widely criminalized since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the late 1970s. Less than two decades after this program redesigned social and criminal justice policy, one in seven black men nationally had lost the right to vote, and as many as one in four in states with the highest African American disenfranchisement rate (Alexander 2010: 188). Significantly, while disenfranchisement policies prevent 2.5% of the total population from voting, they hit over 15% of the total population of African American men (ACLU 2006: 3). Many experts claim that these figures may even understate the impact of felony disenfranchisement, because they do not incorporate the millions of ex-offenders who cannot vote in states that impose fines or fees before their voting rights can be restored (Alexander 2010: 154).   Describing these fees and their legal complications as the “new poll tax,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander has documented significant parallels between today’s voter disenfranchisement and that of the Jim Crow era (1876-1965).

During that period, African Americans were denied the vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disenfranchisement law, even though the Fifteenth Amendment to the US constitution specifically provides that the rights of US citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color.  Formally race-neutral devices were adopted to maintain an all white electorate (Alexander 2010: 187).

With the 2012 presidential election looming, the issue of disenfranchisement is growing in significance.  Following the 2000 election, it was widely reported that Al Gore would have been elected president of the United States rather than George W. Bush if the 600,000 felons who had completed their sentences in Florida been allowed to vote,. The largest civil rights group in America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is currently petitioning the United Nations over what it sees as a concerted effort to disenfranchise black and Latino voters (Pilkington 2011).

These restrictions on voting are far from the norm elsewhere.  About half of European countries allow all incarcerated people to vote, while others disqualify only a small number of prisoners from the polls.  No other country permanently disenfranchises prisoners.



Works Cited

Michelle Alexander (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  New York: The New Press.

American Civil Liberties Union (2006) Out of Step with the World: An Analysis of Felony Disenfranchisement in the U.S. and Other Democracies. New York: ACLU. Available online:

The Pew Centre on the States (2009) “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.” Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Ed Pilkington (2011) “NAACP warns black and Latino Americans could lost the right to vote.” The Guardian. December 5. Online: 2011/dec/05/civil-rights-naacp-voter-warning


Further Reading

Human Rights Watch (1998) Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States.

Michelle Alexander (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  New York: The New Press.

Ryan King (2008) Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States. Washington DC: Sentencing Project.

Andrew Shapiro (1993) “Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy.”  Yale Law Journal 540, November.