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Disability Advocates Want To Raise Awareness Of New Voting Rights Law

Ebone Monet
Disability rights advocates from Spectrum Group protest outside the San Diego Superior Court building on August 23, 2016. The group wants California judges to notify people with disabilities who have been disqualified from voting that they can regain their rights under a new law.

Disability Advocates Want To Raise Awareness Of New Voting Rights Law
Disability Advocates Want More Notice Of Voting Rights Law GUEST: Thomas Coleman, legal director, Spectrum Institute

People with disabilities sometimes need the help of a conservator. Someone authorized to take care financial and other affairs. When those were being arranged the disabled almost lost the right to vote. The San Diego regional center which provides services for people with disability estimates there are 1900 people in San Diego and Imperial Counties under conservatorship who most likely have their ability to both taken away. Now that a new state law is in place of battle is underway to restore those rights and joining me is Thomas Coleman a legal director of spectrum is to do. Welcome. Thank you for having me. Before the new law last year how did a person with disabilities lose the right to vote? If it covers servers ship was instituted by someone a family member or someone who cared for them or a public Guardian, there was a question that was asked on a petition and also the court investigator had the same question and that is whether the person was able or and able to complete an affidavit of voter registration. Basically that is just a form that people fell out when they want to register to vote. They asked for things like do you want to register as a Democrat or Republican and your name in your address and phone number. Some judges had been interpreting that the person had to fill it out on their own without help and many people with disabilities were not in that position and also I think that many of the people operating the conservatorship system were adhering to foster real types and outdated assumptions about the abilities of people who have disabilities and just kind of assuming that they were incompetent to vote. They were checking this box off and once the box got checked off unable to complete an affidavit of voter registration, the judge ordered an order disqualifying the person from voting. Could you give us an example of someone who had their voter rights stripped away? When example is David Rector. He is a man who lives in San Diego. He had a medical condition arise in 2009. We had that she had an aneurysm that caused him to have a stroke and the resulting condition is called locked in syndrome. Here he was an active a man all his life voted all of his life. He was a producer with National Public Radio. All of a sudden he became a quadriplegic and could not speak. He could hear and he could see and he could read and understand and could comprehend, but he could not verbalize anything. It was limited to his eye movements. His fiancé saw a conservatorship proceeding so that she could make medical and financial decisions for him or go unfortunately, that triggered somebody checking a box in 2011 his right to vote was taken away. Now in California we have a new law SB589 it change the process people with disabilities are presumed competent now unless proven otherwise. Is this retroactive -- in other words can people automatically be restored their voting rights? Nothing is automatic. SB589 does have provisions that allow someone to have their right to vote restored if it was taken away. Basically the new standard as to whether someone can retain or regain their right to vote is whether they can expressed a desire to vote. So it is four magic words, I want to vote. They just have to save them, right them, or communicate a desire to vote and whatever method of communication they use and by doing so, they would qualify to have their rights restored. The problem is that -- a couple of problems. One, there are thousands of people throughout the state of California who may have lost their right to vote in these proceedings. They don't know about SB589 or about if there is a procedure that they can get their right to vote restored and two, the court has decided to use a very slow procedure by having every two years it court investigator is supposed to go out and check on the well-being of the people and conservatorships. The problem is that in many counties they are years behind in doing these biannual reviews. As an example, David Rector has been under conservatorship since 2011 and no one has ever come out in a biannual review in all these years. That is what we are encouraging people to take a more proactive approach to this. All they need to do is? All they need to do is to get a communication to the court or to somebody who can pass the information onto the court. Their name, case number, and conservatorship proceeding, in the four magic words I want to vote. They do not need a lawyer. Nothing fancy or complicated. A simple letter to the Superior Court with the case number, the name, I want to vote or signature or a mark and not put the burden on the court to initiate proceedings to restore the right to vote. I've been speaking with Thomas Coleman a legal director. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Disability rights advocates are pushing California courts and nonprofits to spread awareness of a 2015 law that can restore the right to vote to those who have lost it in court proceedings.


SB 589, which took effect in January, makes it harder for people under conservatorship to lose the right to vote in the first place. Conservatees are now presumed competent to vote unless a judge finds they can’t communicate a desire to vote. For those who already had their right to vote taken away, they can submit a written or verbal request to the court expressing their desire to vote and have it restored.

But disability rights groups are concerned that many people under conservatorship don’t know about the new law and could miss the Oct. 24 deadline to register for the November election.

The U.S. Department of Justice is already investigating whether California improperly took away the right to vote from people with disabilities before SB 589. But the Spectrum Institute, which represents disabled clients in voting rights cases, has filed a complaint with the agency asking it to require the California court system to send out notices to those in conservatorships about the law.

The San Diego Regional Center, which provides services to people with developmental disabilities, plans to send a letter to about 1,750 clients this week explaining the legal change.

“We’re gearing up our efforts as we speak,” executive director Carlos Flores said.


Thomas Coleman, the Spectrum Group’s legal director, joins KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on how people with disabilities can regain their right to vote.