Thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are being illegally denied the right to vote, advocates say.
In a complaint filed Thursday with the U.S. Department of Justice, advocates with the Disability and Abuse Project said that California judges are routinely restricting the voting rights of adults with disabilities who are under limited conservatorships, also known as guardianships.
Judges are using literacy tests to determine if individuals should be allowed to vote in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the complaint alleges. What’s more, advocates say that court-appointed attorneys representing people with disabilities have been instructed by judges that individuals under limited conservatorships cannot receive assistance in completing voter registration forms or ballots.
“What is happening in Los Angeles is the tip of the iceberg,” said attorney Thomas F. Coleman, who filed the complaint. “The problem of voting rights violations of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is not isolated to Los Angeles. Such civil rights violations are occurring elsewhere in California. Indeed, this is happening in many states throughout the nation.”
Parents often seek legal authority to continue making medical, financial and other decisions for individuals with developmental disabilities after they turn 18. Coleman’s group acted after hearing from Teresa Thompson who was dismayed that her effort to do just that could leave her son Stephen, now 20, without the right to vote.
“The court appointed an attorney to represent Stephen in the conservatorship process. This attorney told me that it would be inconsistent with the concept of conservatorship for Stephen to have the right to vote,” Thompson said. “I had no idea that by seeking a conservatorship for him that I would cause him to lose the right to vote.”
An audit by the Disability and Abuse Project of 61 recent cases in Los Angeles found that 90 percent of the estimated 10,000 people in the area with conservators may be disqualified from voting.
The advocacy group is asking the Justice Department to step in with legal action, if necessary, to ensure that people with disabilities are not disenfranchised.