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GUEST COLUMN: Voting rights and vulnerability

Recently, there was an allegation made to the Crow Wing County attorney concerning possible abuse of voting privileges with mentally handicapped individuals. The county attorney stated in a recent newspaper article that an investigation had been conducted and no evidence of wrongdoing was found. However, this got me to thinking about the relative ease with which such possible abuse could take place if someone had a mind to do so.

A search of the Minnesota Constitution finds that under Article 7, "persons under guardianship or not mentally competent are not entitled to vote." However, subsequent Minnesota statutes have attempted to clarify this article and to further expand the rights of mentally handicapped individuals. For instance, Statute 524.5-313(c)(8) states that unless otherwise ordered by the court, the ward under guardianship retains the right to vote. Minnesota legislators, in their attempts at further expanding the rights of this population to vote, unfortunately have now placed vulnerable adults in a position to be potentially exploited rather easily. Currently, there are no restrictions on whether a person can vote based on their competency to comprehend the voting material. Likewise, if they cannot read the ballot material, this is not a hindrance to the voting process. The current Minnesota law allows a developmentally disabled person to have another individual, of their choice, be present with them in the voting booth to read the ballot and fill in the ballot for them, if desired. Even if the individual has been legally determined to need a guardian, they may still participate in the voting process and have the above-mentioned assistant with them in the voting booth. The very nature of the voting booth, which is to be private and not subject to scrutiny by others, creates a perfect setting for abuse to take place, as no one would ever be able to see what took place if, for instance, the assistant to the mentally disabled individual elected to fill in the ballot for this person by voting the way the assistant intended. The Minnesota law initially was written with the understanding that this assistance by others would take place on Election Day and would be under the scrutiny, and even the possible assistance, of election judges of multiple political parties. This was written into the law to prevent just such aforementioned possible abuses and fraud. However, further liberalizing of voting requirements now allow for an extended period of absentee voting, with the availability of this early voting at the county courthouse for up to 45 days prior to election day, and with no election judges present, only county employees. This would seem to afford a much greater opportunity for a vulnerable adult to be used and abused by the very voting system that was, by some legislator's intent, aimed at giving maximum freedom for everyone to vote.

As a psychiatrist, I have worked with mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals for almost 40 years. I remember well the discrimination that used to happen to them and the steps the state of Minnesota has taken to change that. However, in the state's rush to correct these problems, it appears to me that the pendulum has now swung the other way; that the lack of attention to competency has again placed these individuals at serious risk of abuse. This must be corrected, or we will surely see abuse of these vulnerable people, who do not have the wherewithall to stand against manipulation, as well as abuse of our voting system, by unscrupulous individuals who do not have the dignity and rights of mentally handicapped individuals as their primary concern.

THOMAS WITTKOPP, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in Brainerd and Staples.