Advocacy group files complaint to expedite California voting restoration process

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In a letter to the Department of Justice, dated August 23, the Disability and Abuse Project at the Spectrum Institute demanded that the agency force the state of California to restore voting rights for thousands of voters with disabilities, now eligible to vote under a new state law, before the upcoming election.

“The problem is that conservatees in California who have been disqualified from voting by order of a probate judge – and there may be thousands or tens of thousands of seniors and people with disabilities in that category – do not know about SB 589,” the Spectrum Institute wrote in the letter. “They do not know they can write to a judge, ex parte, to ask that their right to vote be restored. They are unaware of this right because no one has notified them.”

Prior to January 1, 2016, nearly 90 percent of people under guardianships in Los Angeles County, known as conservatorship in California, had had their voting rights stripped. In a complaint filed with the DOJ in July 2014, the Spectrum Institute argued that the County routinely violated the Voting Rights Act, by implementing a literacy test, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, by failing to provide reasonable accommodations in its voting registration process.

The DOJ confirmed in May 2015 that it opened a state-wide investigation into California’s voting registration system, which remains ongoing.

Meanwhile, the California Legislature overwhelmingly passed a new measure, signed into law October 10, 2015, that creates a presumption that voters under conservatorships can vote. For a voter to lose their right due to disability, the state must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that “the person cannot communicate, with or without reasonable accommodation, a desire to participate in the voting process.”

“They’re not at the head of the pack, but they’re definitely on the forefront,” said Michelle Bishop, voting rights specialist at the National Disability Rights Network, told the Orange County Register. “This idea that you simply have to express the desire to vote is how we want people to be thinking about voting rights.”

However, the Spectrum Institute is not seeing evidence that probate judges, who oversee the conservatorship system, are notifying eligible voters of their rights to have their voting rights restored. As such, the new law is mostly an empty promise.

“Last year we notified the DOJ that California might delay reinstating the voting rights of the disenfranchised,” the Spectrum Institute wrote in a news release. “Our concerns have proven to be warranted. With prodding from the DOJ, perhaps these disability voting bans will be limited quickly.”

Voters have until October 24 to register to vote for the upcoming election.

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Disability Rights Washington, the parent organization of Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy organization in Washington, and is a member of National Disability Rights Network.