U.S. District Court Says People Under Guardianship Have Right to Vote

A federal district court has struck down a Maine law prohibiting anyone under guardianship by reason of mental illness from voting. Doe v. Rowe (U.S. Dist. Ct., Me., No. 00-CV-206-B-S, Aug. 9, 2001) Although the court's ruling applies only to Maine, it is likely to encourage challenges in other states.

Maine's constitution prohibits people who are "under guardianship for reasons of mental illness" from registering to vote or from voting in any election. Jane Doe, Jill Doe, and June Doe (not their real names) are all under guardianship because of mental illness. Jane and Jill suffer from bipolar disorder (formerly known as 'manic depression'), while June has been diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder, antisocial personality and mild organic brain syndrome.

The Maine Disability Rights Center filed suit on the women's behalf, claiming that in denying them the right to vote, the State of Maine violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. All three women maintained that their psychiatric diagnoses did not prevent them from understanding the nature and effect of voting and that to prevent them from exercising their right to vote merely because of their diagnoses was discriminatory.

The U.S. District Court for the state of Maine agrees with the women that Maine's law violates both the Equal Protection Clause and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court also holds that the State has violated people's due process rights by failing to give them notice before a guardianship hearing that they might lose their right to vote. In its ruling, the court wrote that no matter what definition of 'mental illness' is used, it does not automatically mean that a person lacks the capacity to vote.

More than 40 states have constitutional or statutory provisions that prohibit persons under a guardianship from voting.

To read the full text of the court's decision, click here (Adobe Acrobat is required).