Voting is perhaps the most fundamental of all rights. It is the foundation of our democracy. And votes count: in 2000, President George W. Bush won the presidential election by winning in Florida by a margin of 930 votes – out of six million cast.

People with psychiatric disabilities are often denied the opportunity to vote on the grounds  that they are not “competent” to cast a ballot. Some states have laws forbidding people under guardianship from voting, regardless of whether they are competent to do so. Sometimes poll workers, election officials, and even service providers forbid people from voting by imposing their own “competence” standards that have no basis in law.

Under federal law, a person cannot be barred from voting because of “incompetence” except in very limited circumstances. As a rule, if a person is competent enough to go to the polls and vote, or to complete an absentee ballot, federal law requires that the person be allowed to vote.



The Bazelon Center and the National Disability Rights Network have created a voting guide to help people with mental disabilities understand their rights, including the assistance to which they are entitled. Also, flyers are available for distribution or posting in polling places, board of election offices, community mental health centers, and community residences.

As the guide explains:

  • People have the right to vote even if under guardianship.
  • Only a judge can make the decision that someone is not competent to vote.  Service providers, including nursing homes, hospitals, and group homes, cannot bar people from voting.
  • If a state imposes a voter competence requirement, it must apply equally to all voters. For example, election officials cannot require that people with psychiatric disabilities have a comprehensive understanding of the election process or of positions taken by candidates unless they apply the same test to all voters.
  • People with disabilities have the right to get help with voting and to decide who will help them vote. Help can be provided by a friend, family member, caregiver, or service provider.

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