Senility in the Voting Booth

The razor-thin victory margin of the 2000 presidential election has sparked serious scrutiny of voting anomalies that once seemed too trivial to consider. But after just 500 votes in Florida determined who became Commander-in-Chief, it is obvious that even the most arcane of ballot box controversies could be a deciding factor come November. Should felons be permitted to vote? Prison inmates? Non-citizen residents? Children under 18? There are debates over each of these groups, but perhaps the most perplexing of all is the proper status of the Alzheimer victim, the senile, and the demented. It is an especially emotional issue in, you guessed it, Florida, where so many retirees live out their golden or not-so-golden years.

The Constitution doesn’t demand any qualifications for voting rights, other than citizenship. As the Washington Post recently pointed out, any state requirements for informed voting would fail a Constitutional test. One can vote without being literate, sober, or able to speak English. What if a potential voter is non compos mentus?

“Precisely because Alzheimer’s disease insidiously erodes the ability to make reasoned judgments . . . it is somewhat unnerving to consider that patients with dementia may routinely contribute to selecting the leader of the free world,” Victor W. Henderson and David A. Drachman wrote after the 2000 election in the professional journal Neurology. Then again, why should those with dementia be left out of a process dominated by the inattentive, the biased, the self-centered, the shallow, the ignorant and the unread? The real problem is that those with serious dementia often neither want to vote nor are capable of it. Frequently, their guardian votes for them. Is that right?

Ronald C. Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minnesota, thinks so. “Certainly it seems if I give my wife the right to make decisions about my health care — keep him on life support or not — you would think voting would be something she could do,” the Post quotes him as saying.

This is what we call a “faulty analogy,” friends. The decisions about a disabled person’s health care affect that person’s welfare, and it is appropriate for a trusted guardian to make decisions regarding it. But a vote in a public election affects everyone, and for the guardian to vote “for” an individual who cannot make his own voting decisions is nothing more or less than voter fraud. The guardian is voting twice, and that is both wrong and illegal. But according to sources quoted by the Post, this happens frequentlyÂ…especially in Florida.

Not surprisingly, activists from both parties have descended on nursing homes and managed care facilities hoping to pick up votes from residents whose mental state range from being marginally aware of daily events to being in a constant fog. The cynically inclined might argue that either of these conditions are sufficient given the current level of political discourse, but ethically there is scant difference between pressuring a lonely and bewildered elderly person to invest in phony diamond mines and convincing them to vote for George W. Bush. Then again, much of the campaign messages of both parties depend on gullibility, naiveté and civic cluelessness. Are these common disabilities fair game while senility is not? It is hard to see why.

Maybe the Ethics Scoreboard is missing something, but this appears to be an ethical problem that has an obvious solution. As long as a mentally compromised individual wants to vote and can express his or her preference at the polls, there is no reason why the state or anyone else should remove this most basic right of citizenship. It is clearly wrong to let guardians substitute their judgement for that of their charges in the voting booth: the disability of another does not confer the right to vote twice. But permitting reasonable campaign pitches to be made to retirees and elderly residents of nursing homes raises no legitimate ethical issues.

As much as it hurts for us to admit it, the demented will make election day choices that are no better or worse than the rest of us. Let them vote, if they can. Age robs us of health, vigor, time and dignity, but the rights of citizenship should stay with us until the end.

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