Mental health advocates seek constitutional change

? Mental health advocates on Friday urged legislators to place on the ballot a proposal to eliminate mental illness from the Kansas Constitution as a disqualification to vote.

“The current language singling out persons with mental illness is flagrantly discriminatory,” said Rick Cagan, executive director of the state organization of the National Alliance on Mental Health.

The Kansas Constitution states: “The legislature may, by law, exclude persons from voting because of mental illness or commitment to a jail or penal institution.”

Advocates for those with disabilities asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to adopt Senate Concurrent Resolution 1622, which would remove mental illness from the constitutional provision. The committee took the matter under consideration.

Mental illness is a broad category that affects as many as one in four Kansans, and such a broad disqualification provision would violate the U.S. Constitution and federal laws protecting people with disabilities, the advocates argued.

Also it was unfair to treat felons, who are punished by removing their fundamental right to vote, the same as people who are mentally ill, they said.

“Someone who suffers from mental illness should not be placed in the same category as felons when it comes to voting rights,” said Michelle Sweeney, policy analyst with the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.

Several committee members questioned whether people with mental illness who are legally committed to an institution could exercise the proper judgment to vote.

“There has to be a level of capacity for a person to make a decision,” said state Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City.

But the advocates argued that many voters don’t exercise the proper judgment when voting, and they aren’t precluded from the right to cast a ballot.

Amy Campbell, with the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, said some people vote for someone because they like the way the candidates’ name sounds or where the candidate is placed on the ballot. “In no case should an individual with a mental disorder be prevented from voting,” she said.

State Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said there may be concerns that people with mental disorders would be preyed upon by unscrupulous politicians to get their vote. But Campbell said there already are laws in place to prosecute people who improperly try to sway someone to vote for a certain person.

To get on the ballot in November, SCR 1622 would have to be approved on a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

Apparently the Legislature has never exercised its authority to pass a law to exclude people with mental illness from voting. But advocates said the provision still needs to be removed from the constitution because it’s discriminatory.