Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Dementia and the voter.
As swing states with large elderly populations such as Florida gear up for another presidential election, a sleeper issue has been gaining attention on medical, legal and political radar screens: Many people with advanced dementia appear to be voting in elections -- including through absentee ballot. Although there are no national statistics, two studies in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island found that patients at dementia clinics turned out in higher numbers than the general population.The studies point toward anecdotes like this one:
Florida neurologist Marc Swerdloff was taken aback when one of his patients with advanced dementia voted in the 2000 presidential election. The man thought it was 1942 and Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. The patient's wife revealed that she had escorted her husband into the booth.This raises fascinating constitutional issues, illustrated by this country's long history of disqualifying voters (e.g., the poor, women, blacks) as a means of reinforcing discrimination. No one is really arguing that a totally demented person should vote, but there are lots of inconsistent laws on the books, and enforcement of the laws requires judgments that are unreliable and that often reinforce political prejudices:
"I said 'Did he pick?' and she said 'No, I picked for him,' " Swerdloff said. "I felt bad. She essentially voted twice" in the Florida election, which gave George W. Bush a 537-vote victory and the White House.
In California, for example, Democrats are suing the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Menlo Park for preventing activists from talking to residents and homeless veterans. Lawyer Scott Rafferty, a member of presidential candidate John F. Kerry's steering committee, said he was turned away on the grounds that residents have dementia.And what does all this have to do with bioethics and law? Read on:
Rafferty said that most of the residents were of sound mind -- and that most were Democrats. He charged the Bush administration with suppressing Democratic turnout. The Department of Veterans Affairs said it was protecting patients and was required by law to keep out partisan activity.
About 45 states have laws that address whether people who are unable to look after their own finances or health are allowed to vote, Chemerinsky said. About 25 states automatically terminate the right to vote if a person is under the care of a guardian, Mathis added, but those laws are often arcane -- and unevenly enforced.
The result could hardly be worse: a pastiche of outmoded laws that are out of touch with current science and are being applied inconsistently and arbitrarily. Many competent people in nursing facilities are being prevented from voting, advocates say, even as caregivers of other patients with severe dementia vote on their behalf.
As the baby boomers age, the number of Alzheimer's cases will soar, and experts said it is time for the nation to grapple with the issue -- if only to head off abuse.The most interesting line in the story was this one: "Adam Butler of the Disability Rights Center in Little Rock said such talk holds people with disabilities to a higher standard than the rest of the population. No tests of mental competence are required to stand for office, and no law prevents 'competent' voters from choosing candidates for questionable reasons: 'People may vote because they like the way George W. Bush looks or because they like Heinz ketchup.'"
Swerdloff said he wondered whether the Florida woman who voted for her demented husband was guilty of fraud. And he worried about activists going into nursing homes, where two-thirds of the residents have Alzheimer's disease.
"If they can go into a nursing home, why not go into an ICU and have a person who is comatose and on a ventilator -- let the caregiver vote," he said. "Then you say if a person is registered to vote, what about the brain-dead person?"
So who does this help: Kerry or Bush? I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite political novels of all time (Roscoe, by William Kennedy), in which a former mayor of Albany defended the practice of registering and voting people based on their names on gravestones: "Just because they are dead doesn't mean they are going to vote Republican."