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Can People with Down syndrome Vote?

posted Tuesday November 4th, 2008

Can people with Down syndrome vote?

That has got to be the worst question I’ve asked since Sophie was born. The second worst: When Sophie was three months old — and about to have open heart surgery — I asked the geneticist whether people with Down syndrome ever have curly hair. (He gave me a dirty look and said no. In any case, I have since noticed some people with DS who DO have curly hair, although it’s true that Ray, Annabelle and I have wavy/curly hair and Sophie’s is the stick-straight stuff I’ve always dreamed of for myself.)

She was in her PJs tonight, about to brush teeth, when I stopped her to ask, “Who do you want to be president?” We had been practicing with Annabelle, earlier in the evening. As I said to Ray this morning, I really don’t care about any other choice on the ballot — it’s a free country, as they say — but I can’t live in the same house with someone who votes for John McCain. Total dealbreaker.

Instead of scoffing, Ray nodded solemnly and agreed that familiarity does indeed breed contempt. (I’ve covered McCain for a long time:, in case you really want to read even more about the guy. Which I doubt. I know I don’t.)

Annabelle, Sophie and I were giggling over how funny “Obama” sounds and I remembered that I forgot to order “My Mama’s For Obama” tee shirts. As a journalist I’m technically not supposed to share my affiliation, but screw it, I don’t pretend to be unbiased. I already have a good luck charm around my neck that says Obama; I’ll have to turn it around tomorrow night, when I’m covering the McCain rally in Phoenix. (Just color commentary – and to balance things, I’ll be there with our paper’s arch-conservative.)

Anyhow, I asked Sophie who she wants to be president and she yelled, “ABBIE!”

Which is pretty much what she yells in response to most any question, these days. She’s obsessed with our 13 year old pal. It was a completely appropriate response for a 5 year old, with Down syndrome or not, which is why I don’t know understand why the question suddenly popped into my head.

“Will Sophie be able to vote?”

As a one-time political reporter and current citizen of the world, I should know the basics of the Voting Rights Act, not to mention the Constitution, but shoot me — I don’t. Or I did and forgot. In any case, I had to ask Ray.

He smirked. “There’s no IQ test to qualify to vote!”

“Are you sure?”


But of course I had to Google. It took a while to find the answer, amidst all that really smart talk (not) about who’s more retarded — McCain or Obama, Republicans or Democrats, and don’t get me started on the commentary about Sarah Palin.

Finally, I found it. As always, Ray was right. No, there’s no qualification. You just have to be a U.S. citizen and of age. But I wonder how hard that would stick, if challenged. Many states have specifics written into the statutes that stipulate that people with developmental disabilities must be allowed to vote. There’s got to be a reason.

Oh, and by the way, Arizona has no such stipulation. Neither does Alaska.

I sat and thought hard about it. What do I really think? Should anyone, regardless of mental capacity, be allowed to vote? I pushed all the political jokes out of my head and forced myself to be honest. And my honest answer is that I don’t know. I really don’t.

If I had to guess today, I’d say that Sophie is darn well on her way to knowing just what’s up, by the time she’s 18 if not before.

But can I imagine (indeed, have I encountered) adults who are clearly not capable of discerning between the two people at the top of the ticket, let alone below? Yeah. I can.

And yet they clearly deserve the right to vote, if only because of the slippery-slope factor. The potential ramifications, taken to the nth degree, are too horrible to imagine.

Hey, I don’t know a soul who understands everything on that ballot I’ll face tomorrow, myself included. (OK, maybe Ray. Probably Ray.) Two of my smartest friends begged me for pointers, which I in turn had to beg for from my father — then temper with a big grain of the-guy’s-a-public-utility-exec salt.

In any case, Sophie’s already the best judge of character I know. And that’s what I’m basing my vote on tomorrow. Aren’t you?

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11 Responses to “Can People with Down syndrome Vote?”

  1. John and I were having a conversation the other day about how we liked the fact we were voting for the same person. I told him I didn’t think our marriage could have handled it if we were voting for different candidates. Glad I don’t have to find out.

  2. They can vote, and do.

    And why not? Believe me, that most young adults with Down syndrome are smart enough to make a choice. (especially since I suspect that half of the voters are voting for an image, not issues.). What are you going to do about an older parent who is beginning to get senile? Forgetful? Where do you draw the line?

  3. If that person can make a decision, there’s no reason not to. I can see where there is a potential for abuse, but I think the right to vote is more important.

    If you haven’t checked out Dan Drinker (a young man with DS, his brother is making a documentary about his life) you can see why he is voting and voting for Obama for that matter:

  4. Ryan lives with his Republican mother, who strongly influences all within her sphere. “I can’t Dad, I don’t want to make Mom mad.”

    Ryan votes, surely Republican, but has been instructed not to divulge; I tell myself I don’t want to know.

    Curiously, Ryan’s brother & sister-in-love are black & white Christians*, yet his other brother can think in shades of gray.

    In contrast, I am a patriot, MoveOn host, original Obama fan. Our church, not unlike Obama’s liberal denomination, annually celebrates the Sabbath with our brothers & sisters at our local synagogue, then vice versa on Sunday. We’re all gonna be surprised by who we meet in Heaven. I won’t be surprised whose NOT there, but I digress.

    This kind of gut-level difference between spouses undid our multi- decade “marriage”. (quotes = cynical) I could go on, but its a story we’ve all heard. Sigh.

    I wonder how couples like James Carville / Mary Matalin or the Schwarzeneggers make things work. Do they thrive on conflict?

    The following astute observation should have helped me understand, but it only confounds:


    Also curious, this particular topic has drawn more response than usual. Once again, you have touched us.

  5. Hi Amy,
    I just discovered your blog by way of Cate at I Don’t Know What to Say and have read as much as I could sneak in today. I just wanted to say I really enjoy your writing. I wondered aloud if people with Ds could vote and Cate sent me your way…interesting (I have two kids, Leo, 4 (with Ds) and Eleanor is 15 months). And as for the rest of your writing, you’ve brought me to tears sitting here at my desk at work. Your pieces on austin mama were particularly moving, especially the one about how your daughters’ relationship. I look forward to reading more and am excited about having discovered a new blog. All the best to you.

  6. And I forgot to mention that your girls are beautiful. I know everyone says that but I mean it! And I never knew that about the curly hair…I have curly hair and strangely both my kids have straight hair (even the one without Ds). Hmm.

  7. It’s funny you write about this…I was just thinking about this. I used to work at the local recreation center for people with developmental disabilities (before #3 was born, you know what it is) and I know that there are a lot of people there who would have no idea what they were doing if they were able to vote. I know they would be voting whatever their parents told them to vote, would they understand or have their own thoughts? Yet, also, many people there would, so definitely they should be able to vote. You can’t deny them that. I think it’s up to the parents to be responsible and not take advantage of their children’s right to vote, whatever their age.

    What got me thinking about this was I was at the grocery store, and our bagger and I had a terrific conversation, covering everything from our local independent bookstore (which was on one of my brought shopping bags) to Carlos Santana’s amazing skills. This kid was terrific – and yes, DD. But he had many well informed opinions and I was glad he shared them. Many people think that if a person has some disability they can barely tie their shoes and it bugs the crap out of me that many people are so dismissive. I started wondering if he was going to vote. I think I’m going to go ask him if he did, I would like to hear about it from him.

  8. I have to say, I came back to look at this again and I noticed you said it was the WORST question you’ve been asked. I hope it didn’t appear as if I was wondering the answer to that question, or that question itself. I was just wondering if the boy at the store himself had voted or not.

    I’ve been around a lot of people with disabilities and I just see the potential for problems in that some parents often try to think for them “in their best interests” of course.

    Off to blather myself into another corner….

  9. and why does this say 3:09 AM? It’s 8:10. Another ramble.

  10. ok, sari, you are me! that’s something i would do, wonder about that. i’m so glad this generated discussion and that you joined in AND that we are going to the ARC thanksgiving! i’m pretty darn hard to offend — i’m usually busy inadvertantly offending someone else. i still feel guilty for asking the question but i’m glad i did.

  11. There are plenty of non-DS people who vote for whom their parent(s) tell them to. Uninformed voters are a product of the system, not a trait of the voters. And yes, having to put a fine point on how well-informed they’d have to be is far, far worse than any result of having everybody vote.

    But you know what a voting-rights fanatic I am . . .

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