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Moriah: A lesson about voting competence

By Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

Last November, Moriah McKinney went to the Watauga County courthouse with her mother, Cathy, to vote. It was Moriah’s first time, and she wanted to do it right. She had a sample ballot that she’d studied and filled out, and when it was her turn, she laid it next to the real ballot and, one by one, picked her candidates.

Moriah has Down Syndrome. She’s 21 years old. She was nervous heading into the courthouse, says her mother. And heading out? “She was proud.”

So what do Republicans in Raleigh want to do with that sweet moment and thousands like it? Senate Bill 668, introduced earlier this month, would amend the state constitution so that anyone declared mentally incompetent by an N.C. court would be disqualified from voting.

The bill makes no distinction between those who truly don’t have the capacity to vote from those who do but have been declared incompetent for other reasons. Like Moriah. Before she turned 21 last year, her parents brought her before a judge because they wanted authority over Moriah’s medical decisions, and because their daughter doesn’t comprehend the particulars of money and finances.

It was a hard thing to do, having those two words – mentally incompetent – attached to Moriah. The Moriah they know is so much more than that. She’s full of wisdom and sensitivity. She attends high school, likes fashion and swimming, spends time on the computer with her network of Facebook friends.

And like her father, Harold, Moriah watches political shows on television. Last year, she decided she wanted to vote. She studied the bigger races and voted only in the ones she had researched, which means she was probably more prepared than about 98 percent of her fellow voters.

Why would anyone want to snatch that vote away? Like most flawed bills, this one begins with a grain of sense. SB668 sponsor Bill Cook of Beaufort County said Friday that he doesn’t want people incapable of voting being steered to cast a ballot in someone else’s interests. “It’s about the integrity of the vote,” said Cook.

Did he consider people like Moriah, who are capable of voting?

“I don’t think they should vote if they’re judged mentally incompetent,” he said, and also: “I’ve seen folks who are mentally incompetent be manipulated.”

How often has he witnessed this?

“I’ve seen it once,” he said.

Dave Richard, executive director of the ARC of North Carolina, says that’s an issue worth studying. The Arc provides support to people with intellectual disabilities, and Richard would stridently object to the vulnerable being used for votes. But he estimates there are tens of thousands in North Carolina who have milder forms of autism or Down Syndrome, like Moriah, and have been declared mentally incompetent for guardianship reasons. They’re more than capable of voting, and they shouldn’t be caught in the sweep of SB668. “It goes too far,” Richard says.

But this is how Republicans in Raleigh have hacked their way through the legislative session. They find a problem – or invent one – then provide an answer that’s disconnected from real-life consequences. They attack a largely imagined voter fraud problem with a photo ID bill that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. They address an unemployment insurance shortfall by disproportionately cutting benefits for the jobless. They turn down a federal expansion of Medicaid that not only would buy them time to fix a broken state system, but would give hundreds of thousands more North Carolinians a medical safety net.

Each time, lawmakers don’t ask – or don’t care – that legislation will result in real people wondering how they’re going to pay their next bill, or if they can afford to see a specialist, or why they might not be able to vote.

Or, perhaps, why their sons or daughters won’t get to.

There’s one more thing you should know about Moriah McKinney. She’s aware, her parents say. She understands when people are uncomfortable with her. So as parents do, Cathy and Harold McKinney have explained to their daughter that she can’t affect everybody who might not like her.

But they haven’t yet talked to her about SB668.

“It would be devastating to her,” Cathy says. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Then she does, anyway, just for a moment.

“‘They just decided you’re not going to vote again,’” she says. “How would I explain that?”

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