September 18, 2004

Caplan: voting rights for the aging

Given the potential for radically extended lifespans, this issue is sure to become more and more important over the coming decades:

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan wonders, "at what point is someone too impaired to cast a ballot? Many Americans with dementia or other mental impairments, says Caplan, are not given the right to vote even if their impairment does not interfere with their ability to understand the positions of candidates and to make a choice.
"Many people believe that those who plan to vote for President Bush in the upcoming election are crazy, while a large number of other people think those who plan to vote for Sen. John Kerry are nuts. Whichever view best describes your position, it's all too easy to dismiss those who disagree with you as unfit to vote.

While Americans may joke that the voting preferences of those on the other side of the political spectrum are indicative of mental illness — humor aside — has our country actually come to grips with the question of cognitive impairment and the right to vote?

We all remember stories from Palm Beach County and other areas of Florida during the last presidential election in which older voters complained that the ballots were too confusing to use. Do the current methods used for voting block access for those with mental or cognitive impairments? And do those living in institutions, particularly the elderly in nursing homes, always get to exercise their right to vote even if they have a bit of memory loss or suffer from depression? And what are the standards for disqualifying someone from voting because of cognitive impairment?"

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