Oct 16, 2012 14 Share

Counting Votes

Ballot box in shape of United States with vote sticking out of it.

We were concluding our annual IEP meeting last spring when the director of special education offered us a voter registration form for our 19-year-old autistic son Mickey.

“Are you kidding?” my husband Marc said. “He doesn’t know Dick Nixon from Dick Tracy.”

Legally Mickey is entitled to vote, but without being able to weigh and consider the issues and candidates, what would his vote mean? Mickey can vote. But should he? We have the legal authority to make medical and life decisions for him; that certainly doesn’t give us the right to tell him who to vote for. But if he votes, wouldn’t he just be voting for whoever we told him to vote for?

How do you know when—or even if—it’s time to encourage your cognitively disabled adult child to vote?

There was a lawsuit in Minnesota that set off alarms this year—as well it should—about whether disabled people who cannot handle their own affairs and are under the care of a legal guardian should retain the right to vote. It grew out of a 2010 incident in which a Minnesota voter claimed he saw mentally disabled adults being coerced by their caregivers  to vote for certain candidates. I understand that someone with a disability can be taken advantage of—it is one of the worries that keeps me awake nights. But do you penalize all disabled people, just because they could be victimized? How can you take away a person’s right to vote on the grounds of mental illness or intellectual disability? That violates a person’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act

When our nation was founded, only white men could vote; after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, literacy tests and poll taxes barred many African-Americans from voting. The right to vote was hard won for women too. But today voting is a fundamental right protected by federal law. As long as you’re a citizen and over 18, you can vote. It isn’t based on educational level. No one administers a test. We don’t ask voters if they understand the issues, or assess their knowledge of the Constitution. Can you imagine if an IQ test (controversial in itself) for nondisabled citizens were required? What would that cut off be, and who would make that decision?

“Mickey, do you know there’s an election this year?”  I ask him. He doesn’t. I ask who our President is.

“Barack Obama.”

I explain about how next month we will be voting for who will be president for the next four years, and ask, “Would you want to vote?”

“Can I vote for George Washington?” he asks.           

I turn this over and over in my mind. For the rest of his life Mickey will be relying on federal and state programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Mickey can literally read a ballot. He’s over 18. He’s a citizen. He’s entitled to vote. Shouldn’t he be voting on candidates and issues that will affect his own life?  

But there’s a chasm between having the right to vote and the actual ability to understand the issues and voting process. Our son doesn’t understand those issues yet. We hope someday he will. I don’t think he should be voting until he realizes that Election Day means more than a day off from school.

Comment Options


Voting standards

The standard in our democracy within a republic is very simple:- One person 18 or more, one vote This is for all except currently jailed people.  Look at your Voting materials for specific federal and state rules. If they had a test for either raising kids or voting, MOST people I have met in life would FAIL it.


Counting Votes

Thoughtful, beautifully written--as are all of Carter's pieces.  Over & above the voting issue, I was struck by how many decisions, big & small, guradian parents must make--day by day, sometimes minute by minute.


just registering is taking a stand for full citizenship

I do wonder how we'll actually operationalize the act of voting for my now 16 and 14-year-old non-verbal boys, but I don't hesitate for a moment whether they'll be registered to vote.When candidates and politicians look at my boys, I want them to see a constituent, as well as a person requiring supports and services.  Only if they are registered to vote will that be really possible.The downside is that they may get called for jury duty, and on our current trajectory they won't have the capacity for that.  But documenting their impairments with the county clerk won't be unduly burdensome.This is one circumstance where voting the party line, as the ballot design in NY generally permits, may be a real convenience.  


To vote or not to vote

This complicated and important question is posed with so much honesty that I applaud Liane. I'm not sure where I stand on the issue, but I agree that it seems such a shame that Mickey should not vote for the candidate that will best serve his needs, and the needs of many who share a future that will depend on government support. Thank you again, Liane, for giving us something important to think about.



i would encourage him to vote.its fun, and in ny, like california it doesnt matter who he votes for.you can discuss it with him and that would be good too.i doubt there is a legal question here, if he can vote he should vote.best regards   


Not A Game

Voting is not a game.  It DOES matter.  That is the point.


from Barbara

Sorry , Liane no hate mail from me that was a very thought -proviking article you wrote.  I don't know if my son would ever understand the issues, but certain concepts he does comprehend and perhaps someday we could assist him in voting..... this is a ways  down the line.thank you as always,Barbara Stern


Voting rights

How sad you would place more restrictive conditions on your son's right to vote than the federal government. As parents don't we all influence our children's political perspective? In our house we discuss politics all the time and while our autistic son has limited understanding of the issues, his level of understanding however small, entitles him to vote for the candidate of his choosing. Is his choice influenced by his parents views? Sure is, but I could say the same for my typical child. Why place any further limits on our kids than necessary, especially when there are many who vote for one candidate or the other simply because they "like" the person. There's no test as to how informed you need to be to vote. I,I for one, am proud to take my son to vote on Nov. 6th and to allow him to participate in our government as a citizen of the United States.


Parents can't always influence their children's perspective

I think you are a little naive to say that, "As parents, don't we all influence our children's political perspective?" My husband and I are mostly conservative in our religious and political views.  We have 2 boys, one with high functioning autism/bipolar (age 18) and the other is neurotypical (age 15).  The 18-year-old is COMPLETELY opposite from us in viewpoint and very strongly so.  At the moment, religion and politics are his obsession.  We have discussions on the subjects more than once a week.  We have guardianship of our 18-year-old, but allowed him to maintain the right to vote, drive, and marry.  The main reason we allowed those rights was to give him the feeling of some freedoms.  We allowed him to take driver's ed (he insisted), knowing that he would fail.  We don't see him ever getting married, so we're not concerned about that issue.  On voting, he wants to go vote and we will allow him to do so, because he's studied the issues.  I disagree with his candidate choice and do think his ability to reason and make wise decisions is extremely lacking, but I think he has a need to feel important and make his contribution to the world.  Life is difficult enough for him in so many ways that we don't want to take away his "voice" in one area that he feels so confident about, even if we don't agree with him.


Voting with Autism

My 19 year old daughter will vote in her first election.  For the last three months we have taken her to the place that she will vote so that she doesn't get upset or frustrated with the polling place.  We have discussed the issues and propositions as well as the platforms of each candidate, we got a couple of copies of a sample ballot so that she can mark her choices and be able to copy what she has decided.  My daughter is able to read well but not do math, she understands very well but she doesn't write she has a voice recognition program.  However she has practiced and practiced to be ready to vote come November 6th.  I asked her what and who she is voting for and she said to me oh no, that is my personal view and choice, I don't have to tell you or show you.  It took her literally four hours to register to vote but she took her time and did so.  When asked party affilation she put that she doesn't have one, she said I will vote for the person who will work for me and my views.  I felt so proud at that time because shouldn't we all not think of party affiliation but who will help in issues that effect us most!  My daughter cannot do jury duty for all those people who she never met and being in a room and restricted would not work for her.  She would take days and days to make a decision because that is what she does, she understands that making a decision for a guilty vote would be importatnt, that would again take her days and days to decide and she would reread and ask over and over again to why this person did what they did.  In the end she would make a good decision, it's just the rest of the world doesn't have the time and patience to wait and deal with how long decisions take.  My daughter will never drive because as much as she loves to ride in the car, she couldn't concentrate on the road nor make a quick decision while driving.    With all those things that she can't do, voting is something that I can help her prepare for.  I feel that most autistic adults have a strong opinion and view on their lives, voting gives them a voice and an opportunity to feel a sense of being heard. 


I Really Disagree With Your Comment

It appears to me the Liane has higher standards than you.  Voting is important and not a game.  


Autism After Sixteen

 I understnd the issue but it is a shame he cannot vote for something that affects him directly so much. Very  thought provoking.     


thought provoking question

You raised a very important issue for many people, one that I had not yet thought of.  Unfortunatley, I don't have an answer. But thank you for raising thought provoking questions.  It's ironic, my younger son is obsessed with the election, in his "Asperger type of way" & is famiiar with many of the issues, or at least to the extent that many Americans are.  I am worried about how he will cope behaviorally if his candidate does not win.  If that happens, we will try to use it as a life lesson & will be spending a lot of $ & time working with his therapists.  It's always something, isn't it. Life is never boring although sometimes I crave boring.   


Counting Votes

Lee Kupferberg Carter once again raises issues I haven't thought about and delivers a powerful exploration and point of view.