Voting discrimination, and do the disabled get a right to vote in NZ?

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.

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5 Responses to Voting discrimination, and do the disabled get a right to vote in NZ?

  1. Bonnie says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I live in MInnesota and have two disabled children and have been following this. I’m a disability advocate, and while I’m not entirely convinced that requiring a voter ID isn’t a good idea, I’m completely against this one. If you’re going to require that people with a mental disability answer the questions “Do you know who the candidates are?” and whether they understand the ballot questions, you have to ask every single voter. I thought the United States of America prided itself on seeing all people as equal and not discriminating. I’m sure I don’t even need to point out that countless voters have no idea what the current issues are about, and cast their votes blindly in every election.

  2. Hilary says:

    Not sure what you mean by ‘mentally disabled’ as it is a term not used in New Zealand. There are people with intellectual impairment (however it is measured but usually based on some kind of cognitive/IQ/functional testing) and people with mental illness or the Maori term Tangata Whaiora meaning ‘people seeking wellness’. Historically we have confused those two quite separate conditions to the detriment of both groups (such as widespread institutionalisation). Many disabled people also find the term ‘the disabled’ slightly offensive, preferring disabled people or people with disability(ies).

    • Hilary, it doesn’t matter how you “define” them in New Zealand for the purposes of this post, since they are not excluded from voting. That’s the point. It does matter how you define them in the USA, feel free to click through on the links provided for more information on how it works there for the purposes of voting, essentially it appears to turn on whether someone has need of a guardian or not despite being an adult.

      Your point about “the disabled” is not as straight forward as you suggest. Language use about and by the disabled varies greatly, just like how some autistic people like being called autistics, and others find it deeply offensive. When dealing with individuals in person or on their own blogs, I use whatever terms they personally find most respectful and accurate, I do not make a habit of going around telling others what precise terminology they may and may not use, particularly when there is clearly no offence or disrespect intended by the author.

      (Oh, and one last point, the term “mentally disabled” is one used in New Zealand. I am a New Zealander, I use it, most of the people I interact with understand and can use the term too. They’re also New Zealanders. Perhaps you mean some sort of “official” sanction on its use..? Not that I can find; a quick search reveals charities, government organisations, health professionals and researchers here who use the term. But as I said above, the way it’s used in New Zealand is irrelevant for the purposes of everything said in this post, since they’re not excluded no matter how you define them.)

  3. Hilary says:

    I think everybody should be able to vote however they are defined.I also think the voting age should be stead lowered as it is a terrible idea to exclude young people from their democratic rights on the grounds of age. There are some worrying trends in the US to make voting harder, particularly for marginalised groups, and the incident you cite is indicative of the sort of thing that is happening in many ways (making it harder to enrol in the first place, or removing people from the roll for spurious reasons, or making the voting process more complicated, are other ways) . By the way, my son and most of his friends have voted in every election since they turned 18. I find that people with autism are usually very well informed about politics and the issues and have firm opinions. The disability community in NZ has been very pro-active about their rights to votes over the last few years and that is why we have quite good resources and attitudes.

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