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Restored voting rights sought for disabled people

SAN DIEGO - As the November presidential election neared, it looked like David Rector would once again be unable to vote. Five years ago, a judge ruled that a traumatic brain injury disqualified him.

Then the 66-year-old former NPR producer learned about a California law that makes it easier for people with developmental disabilities to keep and regain the right to vote. The law, which took effect Jan. 1, protects that right if they can express a desire to vote.

On Tuesday, Rector will seek to have his voting rights restored, and advocates representing him and others who have been disqualified will file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department asking that California be required to notify them of the new law in time for the Nov. 8 ballot.

All but about a dozen states have some type of law limiting voting rights for individuals based on competence. Advocates say how those laws are enforced varies widely - not just by state but by county and judge.

Supporters of these limits say restrictions are in place to protect against voter fraud.

Under California’s new law, seniors and others with disabilities that are assigned conservators to manage their financial and other affairs keep the right to vote unless a court finds “clear and convincing evidence” that they can’t express a desire to exercise it.

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Thomas Coleman, legal director of the Spectrum Institute, which is filing the complaint on Rector’s behalf, said he anticipates the law will provide voting protections in conservatorship cases going forward. The challenge, he says, is getting the word out to people who have lost the right - a number he estimates at 32,000 in California based on a review of Los Angeles County records.

Previously, California judges stripped voting rights of people with developmental disabilities including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy “almost as a matter of routine,” Coleman said.

“No one should expect them to understand that this new law went into effect and that they have the right to ask for it back,” Coleman said. “They’re disenfranchised. The law has changed and they don’t know about it.”

Many counties are informing people during in-person visits, Coleman said, but because of backlogs that will be too late for many to register by the Oct. 24 deadline for the November election.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement that his office hadn’t seen the complaint and couldn’t comment specifically on it. But Padilla noted he supported the bill that became the law.

“We continually explore ways to provide information to California’s diverse population and are always open to receiving recommendations to improve our outreach efforts,” Padilla said.

Calls to the Judicial Council of California, which sets policies for state courts, were not returned Monday.

Rector moved to San Diego from Washington, D.C., in July 2008 to join his fiancee, Rosalind Alexander-Kasparik. He registered to vote almost immediately, even before getting a new driver’s license.

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Eight months later, Rector clutched his chest and fell to his knees while reading a newspaper at breakfast, stricken by a tear in his aorta. After two days in the hospital, he had a severe brain trauma that left him unable to speak or use his arms and legs.

Today, he uses a wheelchair to move around and can write with limited use of his right thumb. He communicates with electronic devices, using his thumb or eye-tracking software to indicate what he wants. According to the complaint, he can think, feel, comprehend, remember, see, hear and express emotions. During an interview, he cried out when Alexander-Kasparik described his injury and extended his hand to say goodbye.

Alexander-Kasparik says her fiance is still a voracious consumer of TV and radio news and that they collaborate on a comic book series. He laughs when watching scenes from “Star Wars.”

Rector voted in 2010, telling his fiancee of his opinions on a flurry of state ballot measures. At a hearing the following year to appoint Alexander-Kasparik his conservator, Rector cried out after a judge checked a box that said he could no longer vote.

“We knew it was coming, but we didn’t know there was anything that could be done about it,” said Alexander-Kasparik, describing it as a devastating blow.

As this year’s election neared, Alexander-Kasparik asked friends on social media for help getting Rector’s rights restored. She eventually learned about the law authored by state Sen. Marty Block, a San Diego Democrat.

“(Voting) is central to his life,” Alexander-Kasparik said. “Civic responsibility is central to his life ... There are so many people who died for this right. So many people take it for granted.”

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