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Mental Patients Sue State, Allege Denial of Voting Rights

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State officials are confident they'll soon resolve a legal battle with two people who say they were denied the right to vote in November because they are mentally ill.

David Harvey and King D. Monroe, residents of Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, filed a class-action lawsuit earlier this month against a bevy of state officials, including Gov. Tim Kaine and several members of the State Board of Elections and the Dinwiddie County Electoral Board.

In their suit, filed Oct. 2 in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Harvey and Monroe say they requested absentee ballots because they are unable to leave Central State Hopital to vote. They charge that the state unfairly denied their request, allegedly violating their Constitutional rights and federal acts protecting people with disabilities.

Harvey and Monroe are represented in the case by the Virginia Office for Protection and Advocacy, the state's watchdog agency for disability rights.

"It is disappointing that, in this day and age, persons with disabilities are still being discriminated against by state and local officials in one of our most fundamental rights — the right to vote," VOPA Executive Director Colleen Miller says in a statement.

Lawyers for Harvey and Monroe also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in an effort to obtain the absentee ballots in time for Election Day. A hearing on that motion was scheduled for Oct. 24.

Already, though, the State Board of Elections has modified its policy on providing absentee ballots. The board decided Oct. 6 to grant those with mental illnesses the same right as those with physical impairments — the chance to vote by absentee ballot, providing they are otherwise eligible to vote and cannot make it to the polls.

"This policy had been in the works" by the board and the state Attorney General's Office even before the lawsuit was filed, says David Clementson, a spokesman for Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

Also, Clementson says, the Dinwiddie registrar mailed an absentee ballot to Monroe Oct. 6. Clementson says the other plaintiff, Harvey, has not requested a ballot for the November election, contrary to his filed complaint.

The two sides met Oct. 18 for a settlement conference with a federal magistrate, Clementson says. "The parties are confident that they'll reach a resolution to this litigation shortly," he says.

This issue was resolved years ago throughout the country, says Jennifer Mathis, deputy legal director at the Judge Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C.

"Most states have recognized that people in hospitals and nursing homes need to be accommodated to allow them to vote, and they can't be denied the right to vote simply because they're living in an institution," Mathis says. "We haven't seen a lawsuit of this nature or a problem of this nature for many years, so it was surprising to see it resurface now." S

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