Today I came across a story from Minnesota, where voting rights for the mentally disabled has become a hot topic. Currently the law there presupposes their right to vote, unless a judge determines otherwise. There is a movement – and a legal challenge – that would like to see the presumption go against those existing rights; specifically that those under guardianship should not be allowed to vote unless a judge rules otherwise.
Besides the questions this raises about discrimination and any legitimate reasons for excluding a group of people from voting, it made me wonder what the situation was here in New Zealand. Do we also take away people’s rights to vote if a judge says so, solely on the grounds of intellectual or mental disability? The answer appears to be “no:” In New Zealand, people excluded from voting (besides those who are under 18 or do not qualify as citizens in the relevant sense), are only those who are either currently in prison, or “who have been in a psychiatric hospital for more than three years after being charged with a criminal offence.” This website further explains the relevance and function of this exclusion:
“This stipulation in the electoral law is mostly directed towards people who were found ‘innocent’ on account of insanity or people who would have normally been jailed for more than 3 years, but because of their mental conditions they cannot stand trial. (It should however also be noted that all criminals who serve a sentence for more than 3 years are not allowed to vote and therefore this last provision is not considered discriminatory towards people with mental disabilities).”
If someone is in a psychiatric facility for something not linked to a crime, the fact they are in such a facility, does not impact on their right to vote. Naturally then, neither does having an intellectual disability, or any other disability, impact on the right to vote here.
(For more details on the specific provisions and Sections that affect the right to vote for this group of people, click-through to the key part of the Electoral Act. That page includes outgoing links to other relevant statutory provisions.)
Of course there is a difference between having the right to vote and the actual ability to access a voting booth or to understand the voting process. To this end, the Government and organisations like IHC, have been proactive in supporting accessibility to voting booths, and in providing a DVD and other means through which to assist the mentally disabled to understand and take part in their right to vote.
Which is to say, if anything, there is an active interest and intent here in making sure the disabled do get to meaningfully exercise their right to vote.
I’ve been reading some of the arguments for and against the mentally disabled being allowed to vote, as a presumptive right, around the Minnesota debate. I’m thinking about doing a more in-depth post explaining and evaluating the arguments, but at this point I will say this: The right to vote was hard-won for women and various ethnicities and even for the poor. To choose to exclude a group of people from having a very important right like this, requires exceedingly strong arguments. Those arguments have to go beyond stereotypes, and fears of people being influenced by those who have influence over them (many average voters are already similarly influenced, and do not have to provide evidence otherwise).
Neither do we test other voters for their understanding of Party Policies or their knowledge of each candidate, or even their functional logic and education level; to suggest that we require such things of the mentally disabled (as suggested in the Minnesota debate), smells like discrimination to me. Those who suggest we introduce these measures for all voters would have a comparatively stronger argument, but face very significant hurdles in the objectivity and implementation of any such test.
As far as I understand the New Zealand position on the issue, I am satisfied that we currently have a respectful and fair attitude towards the right of the disabled to take part in elections (or, to choose for themselves – actively or by default – to not take part). Whilst I understand the arguments against it, I do not consider them strong enough to trump a presumption to the right to vote.