Caring Currents

Should Someone With Dementia Vote?

Last updated:

October 31, 2008

Will you be escorting someone with dementia to the polls on Tuesday? No law specifically forbids a person with Alzheimer's disease or dementia from voting. There's no federal eligibility standard. But no sensible person could ignore that it's a problematic, case-by-case question.

Add it to the list of tough calls caregivers are forced to make. Don't feel guilty, though, if you decide, after thoughtful contemplation, that it's time that this great right and privilege joins the list of traditions and pleasures that the person in your care, sadly, can no longer partake in.

Why shouldn't someone with dementia vote? Five possible reasons:

* It's illogical: If a person can't manage their finances or legal affairs because of cognitive erosion in thinking and judgment, how can they evaluate the issues and make a political decision?

* It's possibly unethical: Even if you "know" someone impaired is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat or Republican, voting for him (say by absentee ballot) is not the same as an individual casting his or her own vote. It's you voting twice.

* It's potentially fraudulent: If a person with mental impairment needs help to cast a vote, the helper might "nudge" him toward her favored candidates. I'm not saying you would. But already in Ohio and Iowa there have been reports of nursing home staffers registering residents with advanced dementia and voting for them. Many groups (AARP, disability rights groups) say there should be someone on hand to help a voter with a disability -- but when the disability is in the mind and the mind is what's needed to make a choice, what kind of help are we talking about?

* It's possibly illegal: Holding someone's power of attorney doesn't automatically enable you to vote on the person's behalf. You can only do so if the state permits it and/or if the Power of Attorney document specifically spells out that you can register or vote for the person. In many states people under guardianship cannot vote.

* It might just be too hard, at this point: Polls tend to be hectic places with lots of people and activity, not generally great environments for people with moderate dementia or worse. Lines, the various voting steps, and electronic or other new ballots involved may be confusing.

My big "however": If we're talking mild cognitive impairment or an early diagnosis for someone whose memory lapses and cognitive decline don't yet affect everyday life, sure they should vote -- if they’ve been following current events and the election or at least talking about voting. Interest is a useful gauge.

Hot, slippery topic, I know. How will you make the decision?

Image by Flickr user cursedthing, used under the Creative Commons attribution license.