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On Mental Illness and Voting

When I heard a couple of days ago that Cranston's Board of Canvassers was denying a ballot to a voter it deemed mentally ill, I had a bit of deja vu.

I was once a reporter for the Providence Journal, where I covered Cranston City Hall. And one of the most interesting stories I worked on involved the board, led by the blunt and bareknuckled chairman Joseph A. DeLorenzo Jr., denying the ballot to William Sarmento and John A. Sarro, both found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity some 25 years ago and confined to a state mental hospital.

The state's Board of Elections stepped in to quash that decision, as it has with the most recent denial - this one directed at convicted child killer Michael Woodmansee, who served his time in prison and is now in the same state mental hospital that houses Sarmento and Sarro.

These cases are emotionally charged. Sarmento, tortured by visions of Satan, spent months living in sewers and abandoned houses as a teenager before killing two little boys, Frankie Lee Barnes Jr., 9, and Jason Wolf, 6, in 1987. Woodmansee shellacked the bones of his victim, 5-year-old Jason Foreman.

But DeLorenzo and the board were on shaky legal ground. They based their decision to deny ballots to Sarmento and Sarro on a provision of the state constitution that declares "no person who has been lawfully adjudicated to be non compos mentis shall be permitted to vote."

The Board of Canvassers declared that the men had, indeed, been declared "non compos mentis," Latin for "not master of one's mind," when the court found them not guilty by reason of insanity. And because biennial evaluations of the men had not resulted in their release from the state mental hospital, the board found, that the ruling stood.

But national and local advocates for the disabled said the "not guilt by reason of insanity" finding dated to specific acts decades ago, and said nothing about the men's ability to evaluate candidates and cast ballots. The twice-a-year reviews, likewise, said nothing about their competence to vote.

And while the nation's laws are a mish-mash when it comes to mental illness and voting, the country as a whole is moving away from blanket restrictions on the rights of the mentally ill and toward case-be-case evaluations of individuals' competence to perform specific tasks: maintaining a bank account, owning a weapon, or casting a ballot.

This is a tough issue. But the state's Board of Elections, it seems, got it right.

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