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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether California illegally denied voting rights to people with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and other intellectual or developmental disabilities, officials confirmed Wednesday.
The agency disclosed the probe in a May 15 letter to Secretary of State Alex Padilla and the California Supreme Court, in which investigators sought detailed records on how certain voters with disabilities are disqualified, an explanation of the rationale behind it and an account of how frequently it is happening.
The probe follows a federal complaint filed last year by advocates for the disabled who said thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including conditions such as Down syndrome, are being systematically denied the right to vote. The department is investigating whether state voting practices and procedures have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The complaint was anchored to cases in Los Angeles Superior Court, but "we find the allegations to be of concern throughout the state," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Vincente A. Tennerelli.
At issue in the California case is access to the ballot box for adults who enter legal arrangements in which parents or guardians assume the right to make certain decisions for those who lack the ability to manage their financial and medical affairs. In the course of taking that step in court, voting rights are routinely voided, according to the Disability and Abuse Project, which filed the complaint.
California has over 40,000 such cases. The complaint said judges in Los Angeles Superior Court use literacy tests to determine if adults in those legal agreements should have voting rights, a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. It also says that judges and court-appointed attorneys violate federal laws that allow people with disabilities to have assistance to complete voter-registration forms and cast ballots.
Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento, confirmed an investigation is underway in conjunction with the department's civil rights division.
The Judicial Council of California, which oversees the state court system, said in a statement it is cooperating with the inquiry and "we are all committed to the civil rights of all Californians."
The complaint last raised a politically delicate subject: Where is the line to disqualify someone from the voting booth because of a cognitive or developmental impairment?
The council's legal director, Thomas F. Coleman, welcomed the investigation. He said voting-rights violations were part of a pattern of constitutional violations "that make people with disabilities suffer and that have been allowed to continue for far too long."
All but about a dozen states have some type of law limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence. But how those laws are enforced varies widely, advocates say.
A 2007 report for the American Bar Association concluded that "excluding the broad and indefinite category of persons with mental incapacities is not consistent with either the constitutional right to vote ... or the current understanding of mental capacity."