Need help with voting? We’ve got answers

By Beth Brenneman

Voting this upcoming election on Nov. 6 is important for people with disabilities. On the federal level, policy makers will be making important decisions about the future of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other programs that have a great impact on the lives of many people with disabilities. On the state level, they will be making decisions about the funding of education, disabilities services and waivers, our future access to voting and many other critical issues.

We have been delighted to work to inform people about voting. Over the past few months, we have been visited with many voters with disabilities at conferences, health care facilities and their homes to make certain that they know what they need to do to register and participate in the upcoming election.

In the winter 2012/13 issue, you will find a card with the information you need to register to vote and to submit a ballot for the upcoming election. We designed it for you to take with you when you register and vote. At Disability Rights Montana we are happy to answer your voting questions or to help you if you have any difficulty with the voting process.

There are only three qualifications to vote in Montana:

1) you need to be at least 18 years old by election day;
2) you need to be a U.S. citizen; and
3) you need to have been a resident of in Montana for 30 days prior to the election.

To vote, you need to register. Starting Oct. 10 you cannot register by mail. You must go to your county election office. It is usually at the county courthouse. There, you can fill out your registration card and then your absentee ballot.

Thankfully, in Montana there are a variety of ways you can identify yourself to register to vote. You can use your Montana drivers’ license number if you have one, the last
four digits of your Social Security number or a photo id, government issued check or utility bill with your name and address on it.

According to the Montana Constitution and election statutes, the only things that can disqualify you to vote are if: 1) you are convicted of a felony and are currently serving a criminal sentence in a penal institution, or 2) you have been declared of “unsound mind” by a court have not been “restored to capacity” by law.

Felony Conviction/Serving a Sentence in a Penal Institution

If you have been convicted of a felony and are currently in a prison or detention facility, you cannot vote. However, you can vote if you are have been convicted of a felony and are in a prerelease center or on probation or parole.

You may vote if you have been convicted of a misdemeanor and are serving a sentence in a jail or detention center. You may also vote if you are detained awaiting trial for a misdemeanor or felony.

Determination of “Unsound Mind” by a court

State law does not allow people who have been “adjudicated of unsound mind” from voting unless the person “has been restored to capacity as provided by law.” The state courts have not said how these terms apply to voters. But “unsound mind” is rarely if ever the term used in involuntary commitment proceedings or any other proceedings involving people with mental illness or cognitive impairments, largely because it is pretty old fashioned and inaccurate. Also, where a person is committed involuntarily, the person is not found to be incapacitated, and because of this, there is no process necessary to restore the person to capacity.

If anyone challenges your right to vote for this reason, he or she needs to prove it by providing the court order. If the challenger does not, county officials must count your
ballot. If the challenge happens while you are voting and the election judge wants you to fill out a provisional ballot, you should do so. That way, your ballot will be counted unless the challenger submits the document.

Adults With Guardians

When a person is appointed a full guardian, the court makes a determination that the person is “incapacitated.” Even though state election law does suggest that “unsound mind” may have a relationship to incapacity, just appointing a guardian does not necessarily limit a person’s right to vote.

Montana law is clear that a person who is appointed a guardian is not to be presumed incompetent. He or she retains all his or her constitutional rights except those rights that are expressly limited by the court in the guardianship documents. Since the right to vote is a constitutional right, your guardianship does not limit your right to vote unless a court has said that it does.

If your right to vote is challenged because someone believes that you have been found “of unsound mind,” please call Disability Rights Montana.

This is an exciting time in our history and your right to vote is precious. Use it!

Beth Brenneman is a lawyer with Disability Rights Montana.

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