Friday, April 19, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Can people who are mentally incompetent register to vote?

QUESTION: Why does the department of social services send voter registration forms to people in group homes for the mentally impaired? Are people with severe cognitive deficits even allowed to cast ballots?

ANSWER: A certain degree of mental acuity may be required to hold down a job, care for a child, or compose a last will and testament. But being of sound mind isn’t currently a prerequisite for someone to vote – at least not in the state of North Carolina.

According to Dawn Hurdle, Alamance County’s elections director, state law doesn’t even permit elections officials to consider a person’s competency before they add, or remove, that individual from the voter registration rolls.

“We’re not qualified to say whether somebody is competent,” Hurdle explained in an interview. “We have people coming in here all the time [asking us] to remove a parent who has dementia or whatever. But we can only remove a voter due to death, a felony conviction, or because they move to another county.”

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Hurdle stressed that, under no circumstances, will she or a member of her staff remove someone from the voter rolls because of a purported mental deficiency. Nor will they reject a voter registration request just because the applicant is non compos mentis.

According to the N.C. Board of Elections, elections officials use four basic criteria to determine if someone is entitled to vote in North Carolina. Prospective voters must, first of all, be U.S. citizens. They must also reside in the county where they vote for at least 30 days before the election. They may not be serving a felony sentence, which is understood to include probation, parole, or another form of post-release supervision. And they must be at least 18 years old by the date of the general election.

At one time, some states, including North Carolina, had other voting requirements such as literacy tests or proofs of good moral character. These practices, which were widely used to disqualify black voters during the Jim Crow era, were eventually outlawed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forbids the use any “test or device” as a condition for voting or voter registration.

Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, some states have adopted other, presumably more equitable criteria to assess voter competency – such as a formal court ruling that a person is mentally incompetent. There was even a push in 2013 to amend North Carolina’s state constitution to include such a provision, although, a bill that would’ve put this question before the state’s voters ultimately languished in the General Assembly.

At the moment, North Carolina has no statutory provisions to prevent someone deemed legally incompetent from casting a ballot. Meanwhile, Hurdle acknowledges that some public agencies in North Carolina are actually required to provide voter registration forms to people who may be mentally impaired.

According to the county’s elections director, the state of North Carolina obligates local health and social service departments to inquire about the registration status of people who sign up for their services – and invite those who are not to be added to the state’s voter rolls. It ultimately falls to local election officials to confirm the residency of these would-be voters. But mental capacity is currently a question that left to the discretion of the voters themselves.


THE PUBLIC ASKS: Have a question about a matter of public record? Call The Alamance News at (336) 228-7851; write to the newspaper at P.O. Box 431, Graham, NC 27253; or e-mail alamancenews@mail.com.

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