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. http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=84660
Belluck, Pam. 2007. “States Face Decisions on Who is Mentally Fit to Vote,” New York Times June 19. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/us/19vote.html?ex=1183089600&en=13bd776aaf1f01d2&ei=5070
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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/may/20/european-court-of-human-rights-hungary
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. http://elections.ca/res/rec/part/paper/special_needs/special_needs_e.pdf
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), http://www.hreoc.gov.au/human_rights/vote/index.html
Vote. It’s Your Rights: A Guide to the Voting rights of People with Mental Disabilities (Washington: Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, 2008); http://www.bazelon.org/News-Publications/Publications/List/1/CategoryID/12/Level/a/ProductID/5.aspx?SortField=ProductNumber,ProductNumber