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September 30, 2020

Assisting Cognitively Impaired Individuals with Voting: A Quick Guide

The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 42, Issue 1.)

The American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging and the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Memory Center released this week a new guide for assisting voters who have cognitive impairments, Assisting Cognitively Impaired Individuals with Voting: A Quick Guide.

“Cognitive impairments fall along a wide spectrum of severity and quality,” said Charlie Sabatino, director of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.  “The barrier to voting is often not the cognitive impairment, but our misassumptions about capacity to vote.  The real focus should be learning how to assist effectively in the voting process and understanding the legal limits of assistance.  That’s what the Quick Guide does.”

The techniques and tips in the guide are important when interacting with persons who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, intellectual disability, or other brain illness or disorder such as stroke or head injury.  A diagnosis of any of these conditions does not disqualify a person from voting.  Many persons diagnosed with cognitive impairment are able to cast a ballot.  If they can indicate a desire to participate in the voting process and they can indicate a choice among available ballot selections, they should be given the opportunity to vote and, if desired, appropriate assistance in voting. 

The guide provides tips on assisting people who may have cognitive impairments with voting, along with examples of how to respond to communication challenges as effectively as possible and within the limits of assistance permitted by election laws.

The population of potential voters is substantial.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.7% of adults, or 23.2 million, had a condition that limited mental or cognitive functioning in 2014.  Many of them can vote independently or with assistance. 

Sabatino added, “Voting is a fundamental right in a democratic society, so ensuring that no one needlessly loses the right to vote must be a high priority.”

The guide is free on the website of the Commission on Law and Aging and here.

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