Monday, November 24, 2008

Iowa mother wants to limit voting rights of intellectually disabled people

From The Gazette in Iowa:

GRINNELL, Iowa - Brenda Lyddon wants to change the state law so people like her son can't vote — at least without her supervision.

"I don't want to take away a person's right to vote," said Lyddon of Deep River. "It's just that a lot of us, (group) homes and parents, need to work together and agree on what's best for our loved ones."

Lyddon's son Kristopher Willis, 26, is developmentally disabled and lives in a Grinnell group home. She was upset to learn that staff at the home took her son to a polling place on Election Day despite her instructions not to.

"I went to the home and told the person who is in charge of the home he is not allowed to vote," said Lyddon. "I am his mother and he was not allowed to vote."

Doesn't matter, said Len Sandler, a University of Iowa law professor.

"It's one of the rights that are fairly sacred," said Sandler, who makes a specialty of laws that apply to the disabled.

Lyddon, who unsuccessfully challenged her son's ballot, retains guardianship over him for most legal decisions. However, to prevent him from voting would require a court hearing.

"The idea is, what's in the best interests of the ward and as much power and authority as the individual can apply in their own right, that's what you're supposed to preserve as much as possible," Sandler said. "I don't know that it's been litigated that often here."

In Cedar Rapids, the Arc of East Central Iowa holds a voting workshop for disabled people and their families and caregivers.

"Unless it's been specifically taken away from them by the court, they can enjoy all the rights we all do," said Delaine Petersen, executive director of the Cedar Rapids-based group.

"It's the voting process we want them to understand," said John Morris, executive director of Discovery Living, a non-profit that operates 20 group homes in Cedar Rapids. "I'm sure many of them went out and did vote. There was a real sense of pride that as a citizen they were participating as fully as any citizen."

Morris said Discovery Living staff members are cautioned not to "unduly influence" residents' votes, but they are free to discuss politics with them.

"We don't want them pressuring them to vote one way or another," he said. "They can remain neutral, be a source of information."

Lyddon supported and did volunteer work for the Republican Sen. John McCain. Her son voted for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. But she said that's not why she complained.

"He does not have the mental capacity to choose for himself," she wrote in an e-mail.