N.Y. Times: The psychiatric inpatient vote...

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November 16, 2000

Votes by Mentally Ill Disputed in House Race


n an odd twist to the bitterly contested race in New Jersey's 12th Congressional District, Republicans accused their Democratic opponents yesterday of inappropriately gathering dozens of votes from hospitalized psychiatric patients.

Representative Rush Holt, the Democratic incumbent, denied the allegations and said the Republican candidate, Dick Zimmer, was simply trying to cloud the legitimacy of a race he is likely to lose.

"They just keep throwing out these charges hoping some of them stick," said Mark Matzen, the Holt campaign manager. "All they want is the headlines and to plant seeds of doubt."

Although most New Jersey residents institutionalized with mental illness retain the right to vote, the Zimmer campaign said it believed that Democratic Party workers had gone into state psychiatric hospitals with absentee ballots and coerced patients into voting for Mr. Holt, in some cases even filling out the ballots. So far, the Republicans said they had identified 120 ballots cast from a Hunterdon County psychiatric hospital, and were examining votes from at least five other centers.

One week and half a dozen lawsuits since Election Day, Mr. Holt leads Mr. Zimmer by 172 votes. Both sides are awaiting an appeals court decision on whether 73 ballots in Mercer County can be added to 350 more paper ballots there that have yet to be counted.

"We find it troubling that this very close election could be decided by institutionalized patients who were preyed upon by overzealous Democratic operatives," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Zimmer campaign. "Should these people be the deciding votes in this election? We believe probably not."

The Holt campaign said it knew of no effort to reach out to residents of the district's psychiatric hospitals. Over the last week, the Zimmer campaign has repeatedly accused Mr. Holt's supporters of vote tampering. "They keep making allegations, but where's the evidence?" Mr. Matzen asked.

The Zimmer campaign acknowledged that it could not prove widespread voter manipulation, but said a handful of patients had described visits by workers advocating Mr. Holt's candidacy. The relatives of one patient with a diagnosis of schizophrenia said they were outraged when they learned that she had cast a vote for Mr. Holt.

Doris Mount, who has been institutionalized for 30 years, proudly told relatives during a family reunion last week that she had voted by absentee ballot. Joan Kraft, her cousin, said she and other relatives responded with disbelief.

"We thought it was some kind of mock ballot, like the kind schoolchildren fill out, but then we learned it was real," said Ms. Kraft, a retired secretary and registered Democrat from Bethlehem Township. "This is beyond the pale. She shouldn't be voting. This is a woman who says that God tells her what shampoo to buy."

Reached at the day room of the Garrett W. Hagedorn Gero-Psychiatric Center in Glen Gardner, N.J., Ms. Mount said she had been avidly following the race on television. The absentee ballot, she said, was provided by the hospital librarian, who mailed it for her once she had filled it out. "I made up my own mind," she said, her voice faint but deliberate. "I usually vote Republican, but I admit I was a ticket splitter on this one. I voted for Geraldine Ferraro a few years back, because I wanted a woman in office."

Under New Jersey law, institutionalized mental patients can vote unless a judge has declared them incompetent. A state appeals court reaffirmed the law in May after the Mercer County Republican Party sought to nullify seven absentee ballots cast from Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital. There are nearly 2,000 people in four state-run psychiatric hospitals and a similar number in private centers and group homes.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), November 16, 2000


(story continued from above)

Pam Ronan, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Human Services, said the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires that psychiatric hospitals assist patients who want to vote.

Upon admission, patients are informed that they have the right to vote, and hospital employees must provide absentee ballots and, when appropriate, take patients to polling sites.

Ms. Ronan said it was not up to individual staff members to decide who was capable of voting. "That is up to the courts," she said. She said campaign workers were not prohibited from entering hospitals and speaking to patients.

Democrats across the state denied that they had orchestrated vote- collecting among the mentally ill.

Paul Bangiola, chairman of the Morris County Democratic Committee, said he had responded to requests for literature from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, but had never sent volunteers to solicit votes from its 600 patients.

Sam J. Plumeri, Mercer County's party leader, said he would be reluctant to canvass in psychiatric hospitals. "I think that's wrong," he said.

The Zimmer campaign said it was still reviewing ballots cast from institutions to make sure that voters were legally allowed to do so, and that others were not unduly influenced in their choices.

"We believe that what we've learned so far is probably the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Schmidt said.

S. Paul Prior, a staff lawyer for New Jersey Protection and Advocacy, an organization that represents people with disabilities, said it was offensive to suggest that those grappling with mental illness were incapable of making intelligent decisions about politics.

"Yes, not everyone in a psychiatric hospital is going to be able to vote, but many people are admitted at a time of crisis and later become more stable," he said. "Just because you're in a psychiatric hospital doesn't mean you're incompetent.

"The days of `One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' are long gone."

But Kevin Main, the lawyer who argued against counting psychiatric hospital votes before the New Jersey appeals court, said the potential for abuse was enormous. "When someone is fragile or disoriented, anyone can come in and tell them which way to vote," said Mr. Main, who is currently working on behalf of the Zimmer campaign.

Frank Askin, director of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers University, said New Jersey's law was very clear. As long as someone can fill out an absentee ballot, he must be allowed to vote. And, he added, "if they're able to vote, then someone should be allowed to solicit their vote."

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), November 16, 2000.

Here's the link...hope it works.


Gee -- I hope Nurse Ratched's more fair and impartial this time around...remember when the patients voted on whether to watch the world series...?

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), November 16, 2000.

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