Your Right To Vote: What You Need To Know
Your vote is your opportunity to impact candidates for public office. This is important because elected officials at local, state and national levels determine laws and budgets that impact persons who live with mental illness. Make your voice heard. Register online.
Voting is perhaps the most fundamental of all rights in American society. It is the foundation of our democracy. And votes count: in 2000, President George W. Bush won the presidential election by winning in Florida by a margin of 930 votes—out of six million cast.
People with psychiatric disabilities sometimes lose the right to vote because of state law voter competence requirements or because election officials, poll workers or service providers improperly impose their own voter competence requirements.
State Voting Laws
Many states require voters to have a certain level of competence. For information on your state's laws, see our Voting Rights Chart.
If you are denied the right to vote based on a state law, you may be able to take steps to have your voting rights restored.
If you lost the right to vote because a judge found in a guardianship proceeding that you did not have the capacity to vote, you can go back to the court. You should be prepared to present evidence that you understand how the voting process works.
Even in states where people lose the right to vote simply because they have been placed under guardianship, some courts interpret the law to allow people under guardianship to retain the right to vote, or have it restored, if they can demonstrate the competence to vote.
Practices of Election Officials, Service Providers and Others
People with psychiatric disabilities often lose opportunities to vote when they are told by staff of nursing homes or hospitals, other service providers, guardians, family members, or others that they are not capable of voting and must not vote.
This practice is generally unlawful. State laws almost always require that a determination of incapacity to vote be made by a court.
Virtually all states have laws concerning when and how a person's eligibility to vote may be challenged. Competence concerns can only form the basis for a voter challenge under very limited circumstances, if at all. Many states do not permit any voter challenges based on competence grounds.
If someone at the polling place challenges your right to vote, you should not leave without asking to vote a provisional ballot. Your provisional ballot should be counted if there are not proper grounds for the challenge.
Helping Voters with Disabilities
Some people with psychiatric disabilities may need some help with voting. People with disabilities have the right to get help with voting according to the Voting Rights Act. People with disabilities can also decide who will help them vote, including friends or family members, service providers, poll workers or others. The only people who are not allowed to help are the person's employer or an agent of the employer, or, if the voter belongs to a union, an offer or agent of the union.
Download the Providing Voter Assistance flyer (courtesy of The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the National Disability Rights Network).