Topeka Under the Kansas Constitution, state legislators could approve a law that would exclude people with mental illnesses from voting.
Mental health advocates have initiated a push to remove a provision in the Kansas Constitution that allows the Legislature to prohibit people who have mental illnesses from voting.
On the Nov. 2 ballot is a constitutional amendment that, if approved, will eliminate mental illness as a voting disqualification.
The Legislature has never approved such a disqualification, but mental health advocates say the language in the constitution is discriminatory and stigmatizing.
Supporters of the amendment have organized six events statewide on the issue.
The events will be Thursday in Garden City; Oct. 11 in Independence; Oct. 12 in Hays; Oct. 15 in Olathe and Topeka; and Oct. 18 in Wichita.
But advocates for people with mental illnesses say that is both unworkable and unfair — so they are asking voters in the Nov. 2 election to vote “Yes” on a proposal to amend that part of the constitution.
Mental health advocates argue that people with mental illnesses should not face the possibility of losing their fundamental right to vote.
They say that since there is no definition of mental health in the constitution, this could affect an aging parent, a returning war veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, or anyone who suffers from depression, anxiety or even attention deficit disorder.
“If we live long enough, it is foreseeable that each of us could acquire some mental health issue,” said Dr. Roy Menninger, who is chairman of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.
One in 5 adults experiences a mental health disorder in any given year. And people with mental illnesses often live everyday lives — working, paying taxes, raising families — and so they shouldn’t be disallowed to vote, advocates argue.
There is no organized opposition to the proposed amendment, but supporters of it worry what people will think in the voting booth because of misperceptions about mental illness.
“A lot of people who look at this issue … don’t understand it at the outset, but once certain questions are clarified and people understand the ramifications, they are inclined to support it,” said Rick Cagan, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The Legislature has never used its authority under this constitutional section to enact a voting ban. And it appears they wouldn’t want to.
The amendment was approved during the last legislative session 122-0 in the House and 38-1 in the Senate. Both major political party candidates for governor — Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Tom Holland — support the amendment.
But even though legislators have never enacted such a ban on voting, advocates say the language should be stricken from the constitution because it is discriminatory.
“To take a whole segment of people in Kansas and kind of treat them in this fashion in the constitution is discriminatory and stigmatizing,” said Cagan.
Cagan said he believes the amendment “is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” adding that if it fails, legislators may be hesitant to put it on the ballot again.