Should Severely Intellectually Disabled Adults Vote?

Parental guidance raises ethical questions, but the alternative is worse.

Posted Mar 06, 2016

Last November, I was scrolling mindlessly through my Facebook feed when I saw a post that snapped me to attention. It was a picture of an 18-year-old man named Sam who had just voted—which shouldn’t have been that shocking, since it was election day and I had already seen several similar photos. But Sam, like my son Jonah, is severely autistic and intellectually disabled. His mother, I could only assume, walked him into the booth and told him what button to push. Afterwards, she reported in her post, he was given a piece of candy—not because of anything related to his disability, but because he was a first-time voter. It still came off to me as the strangest ABA exercise ever.

            I’ll admit it: At first, I was appalled. It seemed like a perversion of the democratic process. Several of my friends with equivalently impaired children, I soon discovered, felt the same. When I emailed one, Angela, to ask if she had taken her son to vote, she wrote back that she hadn’t: “He doesn’t read or write. He doesn’t understand anything about politics. If I were to take him into a voting booth, I would have to prompt him to pull the lever. It essentially gives me two votes, and I don’t think that serves him or democracy.”

            This sentiment reaches to the highest levels of autism advocacy. Peter Bell, president and CEO of Eden Autism and former executive of Autism Speaks, agreed that parents shouldn’t direct the voting of their disabled children, a process he described as “double voting.” His son, Tyler, cast his ballot in the 2014 election, but only after learning about the candidates from a Power Point presentation his parents crafted. “He made it very clear to us that he had a definitive choice among the candidates,” Bell told me. “It was our responsibility to help him access the polling place and to help him know how to hit the right button when he was in the booth. Helping a disabled person make an independent choice is part of helping them realize their civil right to vote. Unfortunately, there is potential for an abuse of that power.”

            I reached out to the friend who had posted on Facebook, Maggie, wondering if maybe I was overestimating Sam’s disability. But she confirmed, “Social concepts, like government, are very inaccessible. He didn’t know what he was doing when he voted.”

            “Can you believe it?” I asked my husband, Andy. “I would never take Jonah to vote.”

            “Why not?” Andy replied, after considering it for a moment. “Doesn’t he have interests that should be represented also?”

            And of course he does. As someone who will require costly, round-the-clock support for the rest of his life, Jonah is arguably more invested in our government and its policies than most of us. Maggie echoed the same idea: “I want politicians to know Sam is a registered voter, that he’ll be voting. I want them to know that we count, so don’t forget about us.”

            It turns out that, in most states, Sam doesn’t count. Pennsylvania, where we live, is one of only 11 states that have not restricted in any way the right of the intellectually disabled to vote. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia completely prohibit anyone under guardianship or deemed incompetent from voting—this includes adults with intellectual disabilities, dementia, or traumatic brain injuries. The rest of the states are somewhere in the middle, including 20 states that require competency to be assessed by a judge before an individual is stripped of the right to vote, as well as nine states that actually still have vague, relatively unenforceable laws limiting the rights of “idiots.”

            The more I thought about it, the more conflicted I became. There are doubtlessly legitimate concerns about manipulation; Angela worries that it is “presumptuous” of her to assume how her son would vote. But parents and guardians of severely intellectually disabled adults make important decisions for them all the time. The ethical standard most commonly invoked calls for decisions to be made in the best interests of the incapacitated person. Is this a perfect model? There is no such thing, but if it’s considered the best way to resolve the critical medical, residential, and vocational questions all guardians face, it seems appropriate to use the standard in this case as well. In the end, I decided that I agree with Andy and Maggie, simply because the alternative scares me too much. Keeping these profoundly impaired adults from voting ensures the total disenfranchisement of a vulnerable population whose disabilities make them dependent on a government over whom they would have absolutely no influence—dependent to the tune of an average $2.4 million in lifetime services per person. This seems like a strong incentive to neglect.

            Jonah won’t turn 18 until after the upcoming election, but if you have the opportunity to take your severely intellectually disabled child or sibling to vote, I hope you do. (If you’re considering it and would like more information, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the National Disability Rights Network offer a very informative guide.) An estimated one to three million adults are under guardianship in this country. Considering how close many of our previous elections have been—one analyst calculated after the 2012 election that just over 300,000 votes in four swing states would have resulted in a Romney victory, and the infamous Bush-Gore contest was decided by a Florida recount that gave Bush the edge by fewer than 600 votes—this population could have significant impact. Perhaps then, more candidates would consider including in their policy goals the acute needs of our most dependent adults—needs so extensive that the vast majority of families could never hope to meet them on their own. What they don’t need is another reason for politicians to overlook them.