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We’re often impressed by the way Maine people come together to support each other. However, as a state, we failed to do that for some of our fellow Mainers during last week’s election.
By failing to pass Question 8, we are allowing discriminatory, inactive and confusing language to linger in the Maine Constitution. And worse, we have continued to send an unfortunate, unacceptable and inaccurate message to people with certain mental illnesses that they are somehow less than full citizens.
Here’s a quick summary: Maine adopted misguided constitutional language in 1965 that prohibited people under guardianship for reasons of mental illness from voting. In 2001, a federal judge in Maine found that it violates both the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Since then, this provision in the Maine Constitution has not been enforced, though it remains in the document.
“The Court finds that Article II, Section I of the Maine Constitution, along with its implementing statute found in 21-A M.R.S.A. § 115(1), violate both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” U.S. District Judge George Singal wrote in his 2001 ruling. “Thus, the State’s disenfranchisement of those persons under guardianship by reason of mental illness is unconstitutional. Additionally, the Court finds that in implementing its voting restriction, State Defendants have violated Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.”
So, to be absolutely clear, people under guardianship for reasons of mental illness can already vote in Maine. They have been able to since the 2001 court ruling. Question 8’s failure didn’t change that, thankfully. But until the antiquated language is actually removed, it could continue to confuse people and make them think, incorrectly, that they or someone under their guardianship cannot vote.
Despite this most recent electoral setback — now the third such failure on this issue — Maine still needs to remove this plainly discriminatory language from its constitution. Maine’s constitutional wording must catch up to the law, and the basic human dignity of recognizing that people with certain challenges are still people who get to participate in our democracy.
“In this case, a federal court already decided 20-plus years ago that this provision was unconstitutional,” Kim Moody, the executive director of Disability Rights Maine, told Maine Public last week amid voters’ failure to pass Question 8. “So I just don’t understand it. It’s very disheartening.”
It certainly is disheartening. Perhaps some voters didn’t understand the history and current reality when they voted no. But given that this effort to amend the state constitution has now failed three times at the ballot box, we have to assume that many people don’t feel comfortable with these fellow Mainers voting — even though they already can and have been able to for two decades. This perspective misunderstands both mental illness and current law, and ultimately furthers discrimination (even if unintentionally).
We realize that some people likely agreed that this constitutional language needs to be changed, but opposed Question 8 because they still think there should be a process recognizing that not all people may be capable of exercising their right to vote. So we’ll emphasize this again: There is already a provision in Maine’s probate code that does this. So, even when accounting for the nuance from some of Question 8’s skeptics, there is no reason to keep furthering this discriminatory vestige of a less-informed time.
Question 8 on last week’s ballot may have seemed complicated. But the need to address this problem once and for all should be simple. And Maine voters simply failed some of their neighbors last week. We hope they will have another chance, and soon, to correct this mistake.