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Dan Morain: Stepping toward full voting rights

Sen. Marty Block of San Diego is carrying a bill to ensure people adjudged mentally incompetent keep their right to vote.
Sen. Marty Block of San Diego is carrying a bill to ensure people adjudged mentally incompetent keep their right to vote. AP

My brother Frank drove his car off the road coming home from work late one summer night in 1969 when he was a few months shy of 22. He suffered a serious brain injury.

Although he couldn’t live on his own, he read newspapers and watched television, knew the names of presidents and governors, and had a dim opinion of them all.

For most of the last 20 years of his life, I was Frank’s conservator, first with our father, and then on my own. Every six weeks or so, I’d visit him at Napa State Hospital or later at the Oakland nursing home where he lived until the end, in 2000.

I’d make sure he had eyeglasses, the soft-soled shoes he preferred and plenty of cigarettes, Tareytons. We’d go out for movies – he and I preferred action-thrillers – and get lunch at a Denny’s.

Once a year, I’d drive him to San Mateo Medical Center, which used to be called Chope. We’d make our way to a basement waiting room, and a clerk would call us into a conference room.

There, a superior court commissioner would agree that Frank was disabled and sign a form saying he should be conserved for another year. The orders revoked certain privileges and rights. Frank couldn’t drive, for example, or own a gun. Fine with me.

But there was the part about voting. I don’t have a form from one of Frank’s hearings, but a current form reads: “The conservatee is not capable of completing an affidavit of voter registration,” and: “The conservatee is disqualified from voting.”

I’d ask that the commissioners not check boxes revoking Frank’s right to vote, and they’d agree. It was small solace for the indignity of being conserved.

I bring this up because Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, is carrying Senate Bill 589, to make clear that California citizens who need conservators retain the right to vote. The bill, which is backed by the ACLU and disability rights advocates, is a step on the path toward a more perfect union.

In 2008, a young autistic man, Stephen Lopate of Joshua Tree, came of age and wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton. But his mother, who wanted to care for him as he entered adulthood, had gained court-ordered conservatorship of him. As part of that order, the judge removed his right to vote, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.

Sen. Marty Block’s bill to ensure people adjudged mentally incompetent retaining voting rights seems certain to pass, though some Republican legislators oppose it, inexplicably so.

Appalled, Lopate’s mother found Los Angeles attorney Thomas F. Coleman, of the Disability and Abuse Project of the Spectrum Institute, a small nonprofit. Coleman investigated other Los Angeles County conservatorship cases and found that people almost always lost their right to vote.

Last year, Coleman filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. He also turned to the California Judicial Council, which is the administrative arm of the court system, then-Secretary of State Debra Bowen and legislators.

“It seemed to me it was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Block said.

Although the extent of the problem isn’t known, Judicial Council spokesman Peter Allen estimated 3,500 petitions are filed annually for conservatorship under the Lanterman Petris Short Act, the law under which my brother was conserved. Other people, generally older, are conserved as part of probate law. And we baby boomers all are getting older.

The Sacramento County registrar told me only one person has lost the right to vote because of mental incompetence since 2014, and this county’s conservatorship form states conservatees retain voting rights, properly.

But a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Registrar of Voters told me that 132 people had lost their right to vote because of mental incompetency between January 2014 and July of this year.

In Shasta County, a couple became conservator of their 19-year-old daughter. Like Lopate, the young woman was intent on voting. When her sample ballot did not arrive in the mail last year, the parents investigated and found the judge had stripped her right to vote as part of the conservatorship proceeding.

Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen got the woman’s voting right restored in time for the June primary. Now, Shasta County judges ask people in conservatorship proceedings if they know their name, and when and where they were born.

“If they’re can answer those three questions, they’re qualified to vote,” Allen said. Anything beyond that, she said, smacks of literacy tests, which were outlawed 50 years ago.

Voting is a fundamental right, implicit in the Constitution and spelled out in four amendments, plus the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Alex Padilla took action to reinstate the voting rights of low-level criminals. He backs Block’s bill, which seems certain to pass, though several Republican legislators have voted against it, inexplicably.

In the coming weeks, the Legislature will consider increasing funding for people with developmental disabilities. Rates paid to their caregivers have been raised once in the past 12 years. My guess is that legislators would be a little more attentive if developmentally disabled people voted.

I don’t know that Frank ever cast a vote, or how he would have voted, though he counted himself part of the Grand Old Party. Whether he exercised his right or not, at least he had it, and that mattered.

Dan Morain has been a columnist for The Sacramento Bee since 2010, focusing on state government and politics. He can be reached at 916-321-1907, dmorain@sacbee.com or on Twitter, @DanielMorain.

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