Kansas doesn’t ban people with mental illnesses from voting. But believe it or not, the state’s Constitution allows the Legislature to do that, which is discriminatory and offensive.
Voters should approve a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would eliminate mental illness as a possible voting disqualification and protect the right to vote.
The Kansas constitution used to prohibit people under guardianship, those who were “not competent,” or those who were “insane” from either voting or holding office. In 1974, voters removed that prohibition and replaced it with language allowing the Legislature to pass laws to “exclude persons from voting because of mental illness or commitment to a jail or penal institution.”
Because “mental illness” isn’t defined, it could apply to more than 500,000 Kansans, according to Karen McNally, director of community support services at Comcare of Sedgwick County. That could include people with depression, anxiety or attention deficit disorder or veterans with post traumatic stress disorder.
Sherri Luthe, director of parent advocacy at the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas, told The Eagle editorial board that the term “is so broad that it could include anybody’s family member.”
Though the Legislature hasn’t acted on this authority, the fact that it is enshrined in our constitution stigmatizes people who have mental illnesses. What’s especially offensive is that Kansans with mental illnesses are lumped in with criminals as people the Legislature can keep from voting.
“I don’t feel good being judged like a criminal,” Lynn Kohr of Wichita told the editorial board. She noted that she and others who have mental illnesses work, pay taxes and take their voting responsibilities very seriously.
In addition to being hurtful, banning someone with a mental illness from voting would be unconstitutional. In 2001, a federal judge ruled that a provision in Maine’s constitution that denied voting rights to people under guardianship because of mental illness violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
There is no organized opposition to Kansas’ proposed constitutional amendment — nor should there be. The Legislature approved the amendment last year 122-0 in the House and 38-1 in the Senate. And both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Tom Holland, support the amendment.
Still, supporters worry that the amendment might be off the radar screens of many voters. As a result, voters might not understand the issue. Proponents also are concerned that some voters might not make it to the second question at the end of a long ballot.
Even though voting rights aren’t being denied now, Kansans need to do what is right and remove this archaic and offensive provision from our constitution. Vote “yes” on amendment question No. 2.