Debate surrounds voting rights

Advocates say developmentally disabled voters deserve and cherish the right to vote. Others call it an abuse of the electoral system.

By ADAM C. SMITH

St. Petersburg Times, published November 30, 1998

T. PETERSBURG -- In some ways, William J. Kennedy could be a model for all voters.

He cherishes his right to vote and becomes positively giddy when asked about voting. More than three weeks after election day, the 56-year-old St. Petersburg resident still proudly sports his "I Voted" sticker on his wheelchair.

So who won his vote for governor? Kennedy said he voted for Republican Jeb Bush. And Democrat Buddy MacKay.

Kennedy is mildly retarded, with an IQ tested at 62. And while adoring staffers with the Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) say he follows current affairs on television more closely than many of them, Kennedy caused a stir when he showed up at a west St. Petersburg voting precinct Nov. 3.

The voting booth today is America's great equalizer, where a genius millionaire has the same influence as an unemployed, retarded citizen. Advocates say encouraging retarded people to vote helps once disenfranchised citizens become functioning members of society, taking control of their lives.

Others see it as abusing the election system, letting ill-equipped people blindly cast votes or, worse, be exploited by "helpers" telling them how to vote.

"There is no way that man knew what he was doing. He was just laughing and laughing and laughing." said Alberta McGowan, a poll worker who saw Kennedy vote at Walter Fuller Recreation Center. "The man could not walk. He could not write. He could not talk. He could not differentiate between right and wrong or one person from another."

McGowan said she watched staffers from PARC bring a number of retarded citizens to her precinct, and she listened as two women from the agency helped Kennedy and another retarded voter in the booth. Both women from PARC said more or less the same thing.

"She said, "You want to vote for Bush, don't you? You like Bush. Don't you like Bush?' I never heard her even mention Buddy MacKay's name," McGowan recounted.

"The only conclusion I could make was they were bringing in retarded people and having them vote Republican. . . . I believe strongly that everyone should have the right to vote -- if they know what they're doing. This is a disgrace, taking advantage of those illiterate people like that," she said. PARC officials -- including one of the women McGowan watched -- strongly denied that they intentionally swayed any of their clients' voting and said McGowan must have misunderstood. Several PARC staffers laughed at the thought of social workers trying to put a Republican in the governor's mansion.

Developmentally disabled citizens are eligible to vote unless a court has specifically found them to be mentally incompetent, which is rare. Even if someone has a legal guardian making many major decisions for them, they can still vote unless a court rules otherwise.

But McGowan's concern about retarded citizens voting is not unusual.

Elections officials across the country are hearing complaints about blatantly incompetent voters tarnishing the electoral system.

The issue is bubbling up more frequently as social workers increasingly encourage retarded citizens to become more active participants in society. Disabilities laws also have made it easier to vote, and the "motor voter" law of 1993 is pushing state social service agencies to register their residents to vote.

Selena Roe, director of the PARC apartments where Kennedy lives, said some of the concerns stem from people not understanding retarded citizens. For instance, she said, Kennedy's mental capacity to some people might seem worse than it is because he has cerebral palsy and is difficult to understand.

"I think you get into very dangerous ground when you start saying someone who's different should not not be able to vote," Roe said.

America's voting rights were not always so liberal, of course. There was a time when only white men owning land could vote. In some communities, only people who could pay poll taxes could vote. And even after blacks won the right to vote, elections officials in the South often suppressed those votes by requiring literacy tests.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles is not particularly worried about retarded citizens voting. "We run into this question a lot, just as we do with people in nursing homes who are taken in to vote," she said. "It's a touchy issue, but I don't have any jurisdiction over that if the person hasn't been declared mentally incompetent. . . . I know it means an awful lot to them to vote, and they do pay attention -- sometimes more than you and I do."

Ruggles occasionally speaks to groups of retarded citizens and is usually struck by their simple and heartfelt political assessments. "I'm going to vote for Mr. Bush. He's nice," one man told her after a 1992 presidential debate between George Bush and Bill Clinton.

Ruggles had heard plenty of more shallow reasons for choosing a candidate.

In Connecticut, Shirley FitzGerald is trying to persuade lawmakers to create a better system for checking who's competent to vote. Her efforts began after a family dinner when her retarded 80-year-old sister, Dorothy, proudly declared that she voted in the 1996 presidential election. FitzGerald, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters, said she knows her sister well enough to know that she can't make an informed decision.

Dorothy and several other people living in a group home had been registered and taken to the polls by social workers without consulting their legal guardians or family members. FitzGerald worries about caregivers dictating votes. After state officials fought her efforts to eliminate Dorothy's voting rights, she made sure to personally accompany her sister into the voting booth Nov. 3.

"What will I do?" Dorothy asked as soon as the curtain closed.

"In essence, I had the opportunity to vote twice," FitzGerald said. "I revere the system, and I think that makes a mockery of it."

The Hillsborough Association of Retarded Citizens has about 350 members, and CEO Richard Lilliston estimated that 75 percent are registered to vote. He doesn't know how many of them turned out Nov. 3, but he knows that most of them don't share the cynicism about elections that typical voters do.

"It's part of their integration into the larger community, and it's very exciting for them," said Lilliston, whose clients often attend current events classes. "This is what Democracy's all about. Regardless of what motivates our guys to vote, they do vote. That's a good thing."